Opinion

When Netanyahu Called Me to Say: You Know I’m Not Corrupt

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a visit to an army base in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019.
AFP

This happened a few months ago, on a Friday afternoon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was en route from Jerusalem to his home in Caesarea, picked up the phone. He sounded hurt. You know I’m not corrupt, he said. You know I’ve always worked for the good of the country... so because of a few cigars I got from a friend, you commit such character assassination against me?

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Netanyahu was responding to an article I had published that Friday in which I accused him of corruption. His statements last week, in response to the three indictments drawn up against him, reminded me of that conversation. But this time, he was much more upset, much angrier and many times more extreme in his assault on the police and prosecution. “An attempted coup,” “a libel” “a tainted, tendentious process,” “they weren’t hunting for the truth, they were hunting me” – all of these are baseless, unacceptable statements that undermine the rule of law and lead the way to anarchy.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that even today, Netanyahu believes he isn’t corrupt and that all his actions were legal. And on one thing I’m willing to agree with him: He didn’t take office as a corrupt person. He didn’t seek power for the purpose of receiving cash-stuffed envelopes, South American-style. Yet his many years of running the government (13 and-a-half) made him degenerate into arrogance, moral corruption and lose his sense of caution. He has also suffered from two serious diseases – stinginess and an obsession with the media, diseases which incubated inside him for many years and finally burst out into the open as ravaging bacteria that destroyed him.

For years, he viewed the people around him as “stupid” lawyers, “dwarf” businessmen and “nothing” wheeler-dealers. But while they were making millions, he was bringing home a net salary of 25,000 shekels ($7,200) a month, and this drove him crazy. Granted, to this salary you must add the pension he will receive; his family’s living expenses, which are covered by the state; maintenance for his private residence in Caesarea; and also a government plane that costs 700 million shekels. Nevertheless, he felt deprived. Consequently, when businessmen Arnon Milchan and James Packer gave him luxury cigars, cases of pink champagne and expensive jewelry – gifts worth 700,000 shekels – it struck him as reasonable and appropriate. After all, if an ordinary mortal can receive gifts of candy from his friends, then he, who is saving the people of Israel every day, deserves to get many times more.

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His obsession with the media was his other illness. He wanted supportive, sympathetic coverage, from everyone. He wasn’t willing to accept that the media serves as a watchdog of democracy, and therefore, attacks every government. The same media had attacked and ultimately toppled Mapai’s reign in the state’s early decades, over corruption, as well as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in his first term and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not long ago.

His hunger for supportive media led him to meet with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes in 2014 to discuss a benighted deal where Netanyahu would work to rein in competition from the daily’s main rival, Yisrael Hayom, while Mozes would lower the tone of criticism published against Netanyahu in his newspaper. The deal involved bribery on both sides, but only Mozes was charged for it. The meeting proved that Netanyahu’s long years in power and his belief that he deserves to have it all led him to abandon the trait that so typified him in the past – caution. He recorded the incriminating conversation with Mozes, but forgot to erase it, which is what made the indictment against him (for fraud and breach of trust) possible.

The same obsession with positive media coverage led him into yet another deal of bribery, with businessman Shaul Elovitch. He gave 1.8 billion shekels worth of regulatory benefits to Elovitch and his Bezeq corporation in exchange for more favorable coverage on Bezeq’s internet news site, Walla. Now, he has become a burden – to his Likud party, the country and any possibility of returning to normalcy. A true patriot would have resigned and gone home.