Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The Way We Are

Sarah Netanyahu is under a dark cloud suspected of graft and corruption. And she's the Prime Minister's wife. One of her former employees at the Prime Minister's residence was recently awarded a 120,000 shekel (about $30,000) verdict that Sarah had to pay for shorting the guy when he worked for her. Another former employee has made similar claims, even to the extent that Mrs. Prime Minister pocketed the monies collected for returning wine bottles to the supermarket. Another claim, by a caregiver who took care of Sarah's late father when he was infirm, claimed on television, albeit speaking in the shadows with a distorted voice, that she'd never been paid for her work, “nothing, nothing, nothing.” Yet another supplier said that they were indeed paid, and a check was provided to the police during their investigation. But, says the supplier, the check was well short of the monies owed. Lawyers for Mrs. Netanyahu have dismissed the accusations as frivolous. One, they say, the police had no standing making a recommendation for indictment since they have no power to do that. Only the attorney general can recommend indictment. Two, they dispute that Mrs. Netanyahu is not of sound mind, a rumor that has been circulating in the press for several years. Three, they claim that the charges against Mrs. Netanyahu are just more personal attack that have no basis. Even the sum of money she allegedly owes is not worthy of a criminal investigation. In other words, the attorneys, who are well-paid and very competent, are using the classic lawyers tactic of dismissing the claims of the plaintiffs and negating any possible hint of guilt. Some pundits agree and wonder why money issues are not cause for civil not criminal suits.

All of this would have been very amusing if not for a recent report by Yosef Shapira the Israeli State Comptroller who claimed PM Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu could well be guilty of various crimes of his own. Netanyahu has been sullied with suspicions that he 'double-dipped' into State coffers for trips he took abroad while serving as Finance Minister in the mid 2000's. These trips were at the invitation of various Jewish groups who paid for transportation and housing. Netanyahu is suspected of charging the government for the same plane tickets and hotel rooms. The report also states that Netanyahu took money from foreign businessmen for his trips, and even received illicit campaign contributions in cash.

However, the State Comptroller's report took five years to come to light. Raviv Drucker, an investigative reporter for Channel 10 TV news, had witnesses and incriminating evidence of Netanyahu's misdeeds that he turned over to the police five years ago. The police were slow to act. The attorney general at the time, Yehuda Weinstein, was even slower to act. By the time an investigation was completed years had gone by. Witnesses had changed their stories. Charges were never brought. Drucker says he'd even had an interview with one of Netanyahu's drivers who claimed he took cash from businessmen and turned it over to Netanyahu for his campaign, or some other use. Why did it take five years for these charges to come to light? Analysts say that the police and the state's attorney and Micha Lindenstrauss, the State Comptroller at the time, were all appointed by Netanyahu and did as little as possible to implicate him in any misdeeds. Shapira, the new State Comptroller, did eventually issue a report on the matter but according to observers even that was watered down, missing important points. Legal experts claim that the statue of limitations has probably run out on Netanyahu's alleged misdeeds. The current chief-of-police, also a Netanyahu appointee, said after the furor began in the press over Mrs. Netanyahu's alleged graft charges, that the police should never have made their recommendation to indict Mrs. Netanyahu public.

Some observers say that if the situation wern't so serious, the leader of the country and his wife suspected of illicit monetary dealings, and if the previous Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hadn't already been convicted of graft and corruption, then these charges could be ignored. But Israel is surrounded by enemies interested in Israel's destruction. Playing fast and lose with money and morals could erode Israel's ability to defend herself. And send the absolutely wrong message to the general public about acceptable behavior. Analysts say that leaders are supposed to lead, hopefully in a positive direction. The direction received by the PM and his wife, these analysts say, seem to be more schlock than substance.

Now we come to Avigdor Leiberman, leader of the far-right Israel Home party. Leiberman's party has been beset by criminal charges. Members of his party have been indicted for graft and corruption including sweetheart deals, kickbacks, and running up private bills that the State paid for. Leiberman himself was under police investigation for corruption for nearly a decade. The charges were eventually dropped, but some pundits saw the hand of PM Netanyahu in this. Leiberman is a sometime partner of Netanyahu. They ran on a joint ticket in the last election. And once Leiberman was the Director-General of the Prime Minister's office under Netanyahu. Leiberman has often criticized Netanyahu for not being forceful enough with the Palestinians, and ISIS, and Iran. He reportedly said that should Hamas attack Israel again Gaza should become a parking lot. He supported the soldier who shot and killed a disarmed and shackled Palestinian terrorist who had stabbed a fellow soldier. Pundits believ that saying Leiberman takes a hard-line stance is a gross understatement.

The previous Minister of Defense, Gen. Moshe 'Bogie' Ya'alon, criticized the way the police and army were responding to the wave of terrorist stabbings in the streets of Israel. Ya'alon made a statement supporting his deputy-minister, a Lt. General, who started fireworks by saying the trends in Israel reminded him of Germany before WWII. This after the newly appointed army chief-of-staff Gen. Eisenstadt came out in favor of restraint when subduing a terrorist, not shooting and killing someone holding a scissors who was a good distance away from causing harm to anyone.
Netanyahu reportedly saw these statements as a polite military coup waiting to happen. He put a lot of pressure on Ya'alon, who resigned his position, claiming that Israel had lost her “moral compass.” Ya'alon, a former chief-of-staff and highly-respected military man was replaced with Leiberman who had never risen above the rank of corporal.

This all came at a time when Labor party leader Isaac Herzog was in talks to join the coalition with Netanyahu. The Labor party had been holding secret talks with Britain's former PM Tony Blair, US Sec. Of State John Kerry, President Hollande of Holland, and others who were pushing for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Herzog had long been saying that the time was ripe for Israel to make deals not only with the Palestinians but with “moderate” Arab states under threat by ISIS and other radical Islamic fundamentalist movements. Blair and Kerry even managed to convince Egypt's president Al Sisi to make a speech in support of the peace agreement Egypt had with Israel. Pundits believed that Herzog had made a deal with Blair and Kerry to bring Israel to the negotiating table with the Palestinians in exchange for Israel securing some sort of diplomatic ties with the Saudis and others under ISIS threat all paving the way for Herzog's entry into Netanyahu's government that observers thought would pull Netanyahu back to the political center.

Netanyahu was apparently not interested in the deal but was interested in using Herzog as a bargaining chip to get Leiberman to enter the government without making outlandish demands. Leiberman apparently agreed. Netanyahu surprised Israel by announcing that Leiberman would be the new Minister of Defense. The same Leiberman who had been a harsh critic of Netanyahu's 'liberal' policies. The same Leiberman who had been under investigation for a decade for corruption. The same Leiberman who would now be in charge of one of the largest budgets in Israel's economy.

As the new Minister of Defense Leiberman presented himself as moderate, even going so far as to say he wouldn't oppose a two-state solution. He met with the top ranks of the army and tried to clam them. Some accepted his soft words. Others said non-military men had been Minister of Defense in the past and done well, like Moshe Arens under Yitzchak Shamir, and Amir Peretz under Ehud Olmert.

But, still, some of Leiberman's pandering to the moderate core of Israel didn't sit well with Neftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party. Recently Bennet said he did not want a two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also of the Jewish Home party, said no deals with arab states and the Palestinians would happen on her watch.

Neftali Bennet, Minister of Education, whose parents were American before immigrating to Israel, once worked for Netanyahu, and who reportedly views Sarah as a 'terror,' has instituted policies at the Ministry of Education that some observers say warp the educational system, putting undue stress on religious subjects. Bennet is modern orthodox. He is the leader of HaBeit Hayehuda, (The Jewish Home), the inheritor of the zionist religious party voters. His supporters are those who believe in settlements in the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria. Shaked has made outrageous claims in the past. Pundits say she is part of the group aiming to neuter the Israeli judicial system which many on the right consider “leftist” and against settlement.

Some observers say that Netanyahu managed to neutralize the army's criticism of his policy, drift even farther to the right by signing on Leiberman, and side-step any corruption charges against himself by making certain that by the time the facts came to light the statue of limitation had run out. Other observers believe that Netanyahu exhibited outstanding political skill and strategic thinking. He managed to embarrass leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog, quell criticism by the army, and expand his shaky 61 seat coalition to now include a firmer 66 seat hold on the Knesset. And dismiss any move by Blair and Kerry and Hollande to push him into a peace deal he didn't want or wasn't ready for. In reply to these moves Netanyahu has said he would meet with Palestinian president Abas anytime he wanted, one on one, not as part of a committee at French President Hollande's palace. Netanyahu has said he wanted to make a deal. Pundits are not so sure. Netanyahu, they say, seems to be following in the footsteps of former PM Yitzchak Shamir who did his best to do nothing about signing any peace accords while in office.

Which brings us back to Sarah who reportedly has great influence over Netanyahu. Or does she? My personal story is simple. And Sarah wasn't involved. And the few times I'd had to interview Netanyahu it was always like a meeting with a star. I'd interviewed Shamir, Peres, Rabin, and others, but never felt I was being granted a favor or an audience. With Netanyahu an advance man always showed up to make sure the make-up lady was ready, the sound technician was ready, the camera was in place and the lights on, pointed at the chair waiting for him. Then he'd breeze in, after his staff informed us Netanyahu was late for this or that meeting and had no time, impatiently answer questions, and then streak away.

I'd heard the rumors that Netanyahu would have lunch or dinner with supplicants, friends, or supporters and made certain to leave before he had to pay the check or simply wait until someone else paid. I'd heard about the transport company that moved the Netanyahu's possessions from their private apartment to the PM residence and/or back to another residence and then not paid. Of the electrician who did work for them and thought of it as a patriotic duty. (He is also named in the recommendation for indictment because besides his 'patriotic' duty fixing up the Netanyahu residence he also received contracts from the government without the required three estimates for the work.)

But all these were rumors until I ran into the Netanyahu system for avoiding paying when they could. What happened was I'd received a phone call from a major Jewish organization in the states, who I won't name, that was holding a fund-raising dinner. They'd managed to get video blessings from the governor and the senator and the mayor of their state for their cause. I was to get Netanyahu to make a positive statement, a blessing from Israel. To do this I first called up the PM's office and spoke to the staff-member in charge of such requests, an American-born Israeli, who I also won't name. He said he'd make the arrangements. But the next day I received a call from the local representative of the same Jewish organization. Sorry, I was told, but “Bibi” (Netanyahu's nick-name) had his own guy he used to do video interviews. But, I said, his guy didn't get the phone call to do the job, I had. 'Too bad,' I was told. That's the way it is. Okay, I said, then I'm going to have to go public with this. My reason was simple: I have to make a living. I'm not turning over one of my clients to another guy who I suspected would then become the go-to guy for the major organization, not me, when the PM or anyone else had to be interviewed. “Are you planning to sue the PM,” the representative asked, chuckling. “If I have to,” I answered.

The crises was avoided. I was reluctantly granted the interview. Two cameras, two crews, two angles, lighting guy, make-up persona, all in all a big deal. Took forever to clear security to get into the Knesset, because that's where the interview would be held, and even longer to set-up. But finally we were ready. Cameras in place, lights in place, make-up girl in place, empty chair waiting. And in comes the staff guy. “Oops, sorry, very tight schedule,” he said mentioning a visiting head of state that Netanyahu was meeting with in the Knesset. I was in shock. Here I was, ready and waiting, money on the line, even the major organization's representative on the set having flown in especially for the interview. But what I'd encountered was simply Netanyahu's way of negotiating. I envy his confidence and cool. I was told Netanyahu had agreed to give a video blessing to a friend's son for his bar mitzvah. If I would just change tapes, (this was back in the day when Betacam tapes were used professionally) after the blessing to the major organization, and record the blessing for his friend's son's bar mitzvah, Netanyahu would find the time to give the blessing for the organization. I instantly agreed.

And a few minutes later Netanyahu rushed in, looked around, sat down, the make-up girl put a napkin around his neck and applied the make-up. The cameras started to roll. Netanyahu made a statement, serious, cold, matter-of-fact. Then it was over. We switched tapes and then Netanyahu launched into a warm, smiling, happy blessing for his friend's son. Nice of him. (of course the friend could have been a major donor.) But the PM blew the blessing. Half-way through the blessing he got the kid's name wrong without realizing it. When he reached the end he was out of his chair a second after he'd uttered the last word. “Uh, Bibi,” his aide said. “What?” he asked, turning to him. And the aide told him he'd switched names in the end.

That's when I got the distinct impression that Netanyahu frequently made the same blessing and had it memorized. He sat down and flawlessly began again from nearly the exact spot he'd made the mistake, this time completing the blessing with the correct name. Then he was up again, and out the door. “Hey, wait a second, do you want me to send the tape as is, with the mistake and the correction?” He thought a second, and moved out the door. “Edit out the mistake,” his aide said from amid the slip stream left behind by Netanyahu's fast exit. “Who pays?” I called, but the aide was already out the door. I turned to the representative of the major Jewish organization, who shrugged an acceptance of yet another expense for this production.

Then it was go to an editing studio, rent an editing suite and an editor, buy more tape, and cut the piece together. Then make a home video tape to send to Netanyahu's friend's family. All on the major Jewish organization's budget. And that is only my little personal story. I can only imagine what else Netanyahu has pulled to save a buck.But, hey, is this the way to run a country? That's what many Israel's are asking now. Is this the kind of leadership Israel needs? Or do you simply take the good with the bad. Or, perhaps, that's just the way we are, like it or not.