In August 2006, at the height of the Lebanon War, Netanyahu was in London as part of Israel’s international PR effort. Druker revealed that the opposition leader’s hotel bill for his 6-day stay at the Connaught Hotel came to an impressive 131,000 shekels, or $38,000—including a NIS 21,200 restaurant and bar tab, NIS 11,000 on theatre tickets, and NIS 2,500 at the hair salon (Jon Edwards take note—this was Mrs. not Mr. Netanyahu’s expenditure). Ok—so it looks bad—country at war, Bibi living it up. But it gets worse and legally sticky—the visit was not approved by the relevant Parliamentary Committee. And the bulk of the bill was paid for on the credit card of a private individual—one Joshua Rowe of Manchester, England. An investigation is now under consideration to check whether this contravenes the regulations guiding a Knesset Member’s receipt of gifts, especially given that Mr. Rowe has business interests in Israel (to be fair, the accusation of influence peddling seems very far-fetched judging by the facts and based on Mr. Rowe’s own response).
The problem for Israel’s once and would-be leader is that this all follows a familiar pattern. Evidence has begun to emerge of other dubiously paid-for trips, including during Netanyahu’s term as Finance Minister,, and the Israel public is reminded of the avaricious side of the Netanyahu’s and in particular, of First Lady-in-waiting (and a figure scorned, with some justification, by the media) Sara Netanyahu.
The story has presented the Israeli media with a welcome distraction from the rockets falling on the South and the dollar’s falling in the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. A new word has entered the Hebrew dictionary—“Nehentanyahu” —playing on the opposition leader’s name and the Hebrew word for a decadent lifestyle. Israel’s leading news commentator Nahum Barnea writing in the highest-circulation daily, Yediot Aharanot, described Netanyahu’s behavior as hedonistic (thought notably not corrupt), going one better, his colleague Sima Kadmon, described Bibi’s “piggishness”, while the competition Ma’ariv newspaper’s lead writer Ben Caspit spoke of a “tragic character”.
Netanyahu punched back by filing a suit for slander against Channel 10 TV. This is a smart move—it makes Bibi sound confident, it gives him and his surrogates a snappy sound-bite response, and it will take many, many months to be resolved. On the negative side, what it also means is that Netanyahu has failed, thus far at least, to provide any actual documentation to refute the accusation. The law suit is a poor second best to actually and speedily rebutting the story.
So, what is the political fall-out likely to be? 2008 started badly for the Likud leader. The final Winograd Report into that Lebanon War was published at the end of January and not only did the political earthquake it caused measure very low on the scale, but Netanyahu himself was cast as partially responsible for mis-managing the opposition campaign. Olmert and his coalition survived, the PM’s support numbers even climbed a little, and elections receded from the horizon. In February Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff, Naftali Bennettt —a successful recruit from the high-tech world—quit his job, amidst accusations of interference by, you guessed it, Madame Netanyahu. It was the latest in a series of high profile resignations and put Sara firmly back in the spotlight. Now, in March, this latest scandal.
Only a handful of Likud parliamentarians have jumped to their leader’s defense (notably Yuval Steinitz and Gilad Erdan). Most of the Likud leadership and Knesset bloc are on the sidelines, assessing how this plays out politically and probably waiting for some new polling data. Netanyahu clearly has rivals who would love to unseat him—but they are well aware that a pugnacious Bibi, lambasting the biased liberal media, plays well with core Likud constituencies. This is what Netanyahu will be relying on—a combination of casting himself as the underdog vs. the establishment that feeds historic Likud emotions of persecution (see McCain vs. the NYT after the Vicki Iseman allegations and how this played with conservative talk-show radio by way of comparison) plus a screw them, ‘that-a-boy’ attitude, ‘he’s a rogue, but he’s our rogue’ from the LIkud rank and file.
Netanyahu will though take a hit from the centrist voters who are so crucial to his electoral prospects. This is not to claim that the Israeli public is enthusiastic about the alternatives—or that either Kadima leader Ehud Olmert of Labor leader Ehud Barak can exactly run on the clean government, anti-corruption and frugality ticket. Olmert and Barak both have a rich record of police investigators against them and a no-less rich penchant for hedonism in their own life-styles.
But this episode reminds Israelis that they are not enthusiastic about Netanyahu either. He is a default option and the mood of—‘a plague on all your houses’ is the prevalent one—even more so after the Netanyahu revelations. This latest episode is unlikely to be politically decisive in any way—it is though a useful cautionary tale—that Israeli politics and public opinion remain fluid and that Ehud Olmert’s leadership has a resilience that should not be underestimated. And given the pretenders to the throne—Netanyahu and Barak—both failed former Prime Ministers in their own right, and both more hostile to the peace process than the incumbent, that is no bad thing.