Not long ago, I met with a person who is intimately acquainted with Israel’s political elite. “Let’s review the list of prime ministers over the last 20 years,” he suggests. “Let’s see what was their attitude to the tycoons.”
That’s easy, I say. Yitzhak Rabin was elected in 1992.
“True,” he says. “Rabin was tied to the wealthy elites with all his heart. He enjoyed their parties, listened to their advice and drank with them. In turn, they showered him with plenty. When they pressured him not to tax [capital gains from] the stock exchange, he was very understanding. During his tenure, the tax was not imposed.”
“And after Rabin, came ...?”
Shimon Peres, I said. He shot me a victorious look. “Peres?” he asks. “There was nothing he refused to take from the tycoons: contributions to his party, donations to his campaigns and his projects.He was even willing to take a watch from one of them.”
I understand, I said. After Peres came Netanyahu. “Let’s leave Netanyahu on the sidelines for the meanwhile,” he commanded. “Who comes next?”
Barak, I said. He laughed out loud. “Barak,” he said, “was not only the friend of the greatest of tycoons in Israel and the world, but he is himself a tycoon. Who knows where the investigations against him would have led, if not for the glowing defense of the State Comptroller.”
And then, I said, Sharon was elected. “You are referring to the father of the Greek islands [illegal real-estate deals in Greece]?” he jeered. “Sharon knew the value of money, the value of property. Who comes after Sharon?”
Olmert, I said. “Aha,” he roared. “There was no prime minister more closely linked to the top-level elites of the business world than Ehud Olmert. He was, and remains, one of them. He lives like them, jet-sets like them and acts like them. They were all his friends.”
You skipped Netanyahu twice, I said. “That wasn’t accidental,” he said. “The difference [between Netanyahu and the others] is in the social milieu: All prime ministers since Rabin were tied to Israeli tycoons. Netanyahu is the only one not connected to them. He does not spend time with them and does not listen to their advice. He does not owe them anything, and they don’t owe him. But Netanyahu is connected to other tycoons: American ones. His friends are billionaires from there, not millionaires from here. He has no patience for [rich] Israelis.”
What is better, I ask.
“You tell me,” he says.
In one sense, I said, Netanyahu is preferable. His economic decisions are free of pressures from friends: The issue of economic centralization does not interest his patrons in America, not even housing prices. In another sense he is dangerous, because his American patrons and their purse-strings are deeply involved in policy decisions of the government of Israel. Netanyahu can refuse our tycoons. He just can’t disappoint his tycoons.
If you ask me, I said, I prefer our tycoons — they are less dangerous. They live here. They die here. They won’t gamble from Los Vegas on the fate of the State of Israel.
“My conclusions are different,” he said. “Wherever you look, whoever was or will be prime minister here is connected to the affluent. One is connected to a local tycoon, the second to a Russian oligarch, the third to an American billionaire. All are nouveaux riches. All are hedonists. All are exploiters. That’s just the way is.”
So what, I ask.
“So we need to take them in proportion. Not one of them is a saint. Saints don’t become prime ministers. So we have to impose boundaries on them — that’s why we have a state comptroller and a court system.
”Take, for example, Olmert’s verdict. The fact that he was acquitted of most of the charges against him does not make him a saint. Whoever says so is letting himself get carried away. On the other hand, the others who pounced on that verdict show evidence of exaggeration at best, and hypocrisy at worst. White-as-snow purity is a vice because purity does not call for justice, but for inquisition.”
I have a story for you, I said. In the midst of the investigations against Netanyahu, at the end of his first term of office [1996-1999], I asked a fellow journalist what all the noise was about. You don’t depose a prime minister because he owes the state payment for the transport of furniture, I said. He disagreed with me; he calculated the price of the haulage and added on various and sundry taxes. It turned out to be a respectable sum of money.
OK, I said; Netanyahu is an exploiter. No, said my journalist-colleague, you are making a mistake: He is a criminal offender. I have evidence to prove it.
Now my conversational partner says, “What’s your point?”
The point is that the same journalist is now working for Netanyahu’s patron, I said. The newspaper changed hands. The offender changed.