News & Politics

Will Current Scandals End Netanyahu’s Career?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017. (Ronen Zvulun, pool via AP)

Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu is the second-longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history (the record-holder being David Ben-Gurion) and, if a recent Jerusalem Post poll is any indicator, remains very popular in Israel, with 39% of the public considering him the best choice of any likely current politician for the job. However, as the famous axiom attributed to Lord Acton has it, power corrupts; a corollary to the axiom might read: Length of time in office increases the likelihood and extent of the corruption.

Netanyahu is on record as calling the present series of investigations into possible questionable deals he has made “unprecedented” and a “carnival of hypocrisy and self-righteousnesss.” It may perhaps be the latter, considering some of the people leading the charge. But it is hardly unprecedented in Israeli history.

Consider, for instance, the fact that the Likud party first came to power in 1977 on the heels of multiple financial scandals involving Yitzhak Rabin’s first government: his minister of housing committed suicide during an investigation into corruption and preferential treatment for certain people in securing choice apartments; the head of the Histadrut (Israel’s institutional labor union, an important arm of what is today called the Labor Party) was found with his hand in the till and convicted of embezzling; and Rabin himself was found guilty of violating then-Israeli law prohibiting Israeli citizens from maintaining foreign bank accounts.

There were multiple scandals surrounding the late Ariel Sharon and his sons while he was in office. Also, his immediate successor, Ehud Olmert, was actually convicted and is now serving time for accepting bribes and political corruption.

If there is anything “unprecedented,” it is the number of separate streams in the farrago of scandal presently threatening to engulf Bibi.

The current crop of issues was touched off with what became known as the “Bottlegate affair” in 2015. In brief, the allegation was made that Sara Netanyahu, Bibi’s wife, had been pocketing the receipts from deposits for empty bottles from the prime minister’s residence, which had been purchased with state funds. This may sound at first blush like mere chickenfeed, but one must remember that there are many official functions held at the prime minister’s residence in which a great deal of wine and other beverages is consumed — the amount of money involved proved quite substantial.

That affair led to vague, unproven allegations that substantial repairs and improvements on the Netanyahus’ private home in the upper-scale area of Caesarea had been carried out at government expense, concealed by accounting chicanery. Both scandals eventually blew over, and Sara Netanyahu eventually wrote a substantial check to reimburse the government for the “petty cash” bottle deposits.

Now, more scandals have come under police probe.

The first began with allegations that Netanyahu’s personal lawyer and counselor, David Shimron, had been unethically involved in a decision to award a billion-dollar contract to the German firm ThyssenKrupp to build three Dolphin-class submarines for the Israeli Navy.

(Ironically, the original Fritz Thyssen had been an early enthusiastic supporter of National Socialism in Germany. The Krupp family had long been the armorers of the German army, providing much of the artillery used by the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS in World War II.)

Part of the present irony is the fact that a 4.5% stake in ThyssenKrupp is held by the Iranian government. Shimron represented the German firm in Israel, and allegations have been made that Netanyahu pushed awarding the contract to ThyssenKrupp against the objections of Israel’s security establishment (which has been officially denied by the Ministry of Defense). The probe has now widened to encompass a 2014 contract also awarded to ThyssenKrupp for other naval vessels.

The Iranian connection makes this matter exceptionally sensitive. Though the Iranian investment in the German firm dates back to 1974 when the shah was still in power, Iran now earns over $2B per year in dividends from the company. This comes on the heels of a judgment in Switzerland last summer, in which Israel was forced to pay $1.1B plus interest to Iran in settlement of a dispute concerning a secret oil deal also dating to the last days of the shah’s rule.

There is also a scandal now involving Israeli press baron Arnon (“Noni”) Mozes. Noni Mozes is the owner of the most widely circulated Hebrew-language daily in Israel, Yedioth Acharonoth. In recent years, the paper has been given a run for its money by a paper distributed gratis, Yisrael Hayom, owned by American magnate Sheldon Adelson. The latter paper is unabashedly pro-Likud and especially pro-Netanyahu in its coverage, to the point that it has been accused of engaging in political propaganda on his behalf.

As a result, there have been calls for legislation prohibiting the “unfair competition” of a newspaper distributed for free versus those which have to be purchased.

About a month ago, it was revealed that Netanyahu had held several secretive meetings with Mozes, allegedly to discuss arranging favorable coverage of his actions by Yedioth Acharonoth in exchange for inhibiting competition by Adelson’s paper.

Netanyahu has tried to deny this, but he has a problem: the conversations were taped, and the tapes were acquired by Israel’s Channel 10. On the tapes, Mozes is heard offering Netanyahu bribes for backing a bill, proposed in 2014, which would make it illegal to distribute a free newspaper in Israel, and Netanyahu is heard asking for sympathetic coverage in exchange for “huge financial benefits.”

Though he initially denied any of this, once the tapes surfaced, Netanyahu changed his story to say that he lied on the tapes in order to expose the corrupt Noni Mozes. Ironically, it was Yedioth Acharonoth which first broke the story of the submarine probe.

And last, but certainly not least, an entirely separate probe is looking into allegations that Netanyahu has accepted gifts totaling hundreds of thousands of sheqalim from wealthy business associates, including cigars and expensive alcohol. Netanyahu has admitted to accepting these gifts, but insists that they’re mere “trifles.”

Any one of these could be enough to bring the government down, if indictments result from them. The question is to whose benefit.