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Couples in corruption

How much should we really care about the corrupt conduct of Benjamin Netanyahu?


Many years ago I got a phone call from the Prime Minister's Office. Yitzhak Rabin wanted to meet me on two occasions.

Rabin even opened the door. He was alone in the house. He led me to a comfortable chair, poured two generous glasses of whiskey, and started with nothing but – but he hated the smattering – "Uri, have you decided to crush all the pigeons in the Labor Party?"

My news magazine Haolam Hazeh campaigned against corruption and had brought charges against two prominent Labor party leaders, the new head of the central bank and the Minister of Housing. Both belonged to the moderate wing of the party – the "pigeons".

I explained to Rabin that in the fight against corruption I could not make exceptions for politicians who were close to me politically. Corruption was a big enough issue in itself.

The first generation of the founders of Israel were not corrupt. Corruption was unthinkable.

In fact, purism was driven to the extreme. A prominent leader of the Labor Party was once criticized for having built a villa for himself in a suburb of Jerusalem. It was not the slightest hint of corruption. He had inherited the money. But it was considered outrageous for a labor party leader to live in a private villa. He was excluded from the party, and thus his political career was over.

At about the same time, an official residence was built for the Foreign Minister, so that he could receive high-ranking guests from abroad in dignified surroundings. Former Minister Moshe Sharett thought it was wrong to keep his private apartment, so he sold it and donated the money to several charities.

The next generation was quite different. It behaved as if it had a divine right to own. The most typical representative of this generation was Moshe Dayan. He was a native, and David Ben-Gurion appointed him chief of staff. As such, he led many "retaliation fears" across the border, and in 1956 the attack on Egypt that ended with a resounding victory (well helped by the Franco-British invasion of the Suez Canal Zone behind the back of the Egyptian army).

Dayan was an amateur archaeologist. His private villa (at that time villas were allowed) was full of ancient artefacts that he dug up all over the country. This was strictly illegal, – unprofessional excavation destroys historical evidence and makes it impossible to determine the age of finds. But everyone looked through their fingers at it. After all, Dayan was a national hero.

Then my magazine, the aforementioned Haolam Hazeh, published a devastating revelation: Dayan did not content himself with storing the artefacts in his garden. He sold them all over the world, with a personally signed cover letter that sent the price up. This revelation created a great scandal and ignited a lot of hatred – against me. A poll published that year singled me out as nothing more than the country's most hated person, closely followed by the leader of the Communist Party.

Dayan's brother-in-law was Ezer Weitzman, the general who made sure that the Air Force won the legendary victory in the Six Day War in 1967. It was a public secret that Weitzman was well cared for by an American-Jewish millionaire and lived in a luxurious villa in Caesarea, the most fashionable area in the country ( where Benjamin Netanyahu now has his own private villa).

This has been common practice for some years. Every Jewish millionaire in the United States had "his" Israeli general, whom he maintained as a standard of living, and who was his pride and joy. For wealthy Jews, having an Israeli general present in family parties was a mandatory status symbol.

Take, for example, Ariel Sharon. Son of poor parents who lived in a village based on cooperative principles. When he ended his military career, he suddenly owned a huge ranch. He received it as a gift from an Israeli-American multimillionaire. (Rumor has it that he wrote off the money on the tax he paid in the United States.)

This was at a time when Israeli generals were heroes – not just in their homeland, but all over the world. Moshe Dayan, easily recognizable with the black patch over his eye, was a hero in Los Angeles as well as in Haifa.

All these generals (with the exception of Ezer Weitzman, who came from a wealthy family) grew up in very cramped conditions. Their parents were members of kibbutzim or cooperatives of small, private farms (moshav), who were all very poor at the time.

The generous Israeli taxpayers paid about $ 600 for Bibi's five days in New York last fall.

This also applied the next generation of leaders. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister – who is now in prison for corruption – grew up in a poor neighborhood and became obsessed with the urge to own expensive things. Former President Moshe Katzav, who is in the same prison, was convicted of rape and not corruption, but he too grew up in poverty as a new immigrant.

Ehud Barak, former chief of staff and prime minister, is now amassing a large fortune by "advising" foreign governments. He grew up in a poor village.

I myself was spared this craving for money, despite the fact that I also lived in extreme poverty after coming to Palestine as a ten-year-old. Before that, I fortunately grew up in prosperity in Germany. Since my family and I were much happier in Israel than in Germany, I learned that happiness is not necessarily about wealth.

I came to think of all this because we are almost daily bombarded with allegations of corruption against Benjamin Netanyahu and his very unpopular wife Sarah. She is a former flight attendant and met her husband on a flight, and seems to be a grater who tyrannizes the employees in the service home. Some of them have sued her. They revealed that she sneaks from the public household to meet her own needs.

But what is really worrying is that Sarah Netanyahu – who was not elected by anyone – seems to be taking care of all the important public appointments. No one can get these positions without having been interviewed and approved by her in person.

She has appointed all three most important positions within the judiciary: the Minister of Justice, the Auditor General and the Director of Police. It may seem like a sign of foresight – for now these three are sitting and conferring with each other day and night about what to do with the flood of revelations about the Netanyahu family's money affairs. They desperately want to avoid prosecuting the Netanyahu family for anything, but it is becoming increasingly difficult as they are monitored by the Supreme Court.

I have already written about some of these revelations, but new ones appear every single week. It has become a kind of national sport. It began with the revelation that Netanyahu, before becoming prime minister and getting in and out of government, was paid double and triple for first-class airline tickets by various gullible institutions, and without declaring it as income. Now this is called "Bibi Travels" in Israeli slang. Since then, he has been involved in all kinds of cases that border on criminal corruption, and which are now at various stages of "investigation". New cases are constantly being added to the list. The three Netanyahu-appointed officials are constantly considering whether to demand a police investigation. In that case, it could force Netanyahu to step down as prime minister, at least temporarily.

The climax was reached when a Jewish financier accused in France of a colossal fraud could tell the court that he had personally given Netanyahu one million euros and paid his extremely expensive hotel bills in many cities, including on the French Riviera. It is uncertain what the exact sums are, but it has never been denied that Netanyahu has received large sums of money from the man, who was already then suspected of corruption.

The generous Israeli taxpayers (myself included) paid about $ 600 for Bibi's five days in New York last fall. This sum – over $ 000 per day – included payment for his private hairdresser ($ 100) and his makeup artist ($ 000). The purpose of the trip was to speak at the UN General Assembly. I wonder how much each word cost.

The information was released by the court on the basis of the law on free information.

The Israeli public swallows everything. No one seems to be furious. But it hails with jokes about the «royal couple».

Too many of Netanyahu's own voters, who are mostly poor people of Eastern Jewish descent, these revelations only show that he is a capable person who knows how to take advantage of opportunities, as they themselves would so like to do.

What to do with the revelations that dominate so many news broadcasts on television and headlines in the newspapers? I must admit that I look at them with a certain contempt. What are these cases of petty corruption compared to all that Netanyahu does and does not do, and that has a direct impact on Israel's fate?

In my view, Benjamin Netanyahu is the one who digs a grave for our country – the man who sets the course for disaster, the man who hinders every opportunity for peace. Just a few days ago, Netanyahu proudly told his party colleagues that he would "never" agree to negotiations based on the Arab 2002 peace initiative, which includes an end to the occupation, the establishment of the Palestinian state and the evacuation of the illegal settlements. Many believe that this refusal is fatal.

Faced with such catastrophic conditions – who really bothers to get upset over some corruption?

But then I remember the case of Al Capone, the gangster who was behind major crimes, including cold-blooded murders of many people – but who was eventually convicted and sent to prison for tax evasion.

If Netanyahu can be convicted of petty corruption and forced to resign – is that not exactly what the country needs?

Avnery previously sat in the Knesset, and has led one of Israel's peace movements.
Commentator in Ny Tid. Avnery is a former member of the Knesset in Israel. Israeli journalist and peace activist (born 1923).

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