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Netanyahu's household expenses become campaign issue

The media's preoccupation with funds from bottle deposits allegedly pocketed by the prime minister's wife draws attention away from the real diplomatic issues, and lets Bibi off the hook.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara (L) attend a reinterment ceremony for Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson and his wife Frances in the agricultural cooperative of Avihayil, north of Netanya December 4, 2014. Patterson, a British commander of the Jewish Legion during World War I, died in 1947 and his ashes were brought to Israel and re-buried on Thursday. REUTERS/Nir Elias (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY OBITUARY) - RTR4GP0S

“The way to try and topple the Likud [party] under my leadership is to divert attention from the central election issue: who will lead the people and the state.” This was what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted this past weekend, Jan. 30, on Facebook in an attempt to deflect public criticism of the way he and his wife managed their household in the prime minister’s official Jerusalem residence. The post was written following several reports in recent days about the couple’s conduct, which grabbed the main headlines in most media and cast a cloud over the Likud’s election campaign.

As mentioned here last week, polls indicate that the Israeli right wing has a strong interest in diverting attention from social-economic concerns, those that most occupy the Israeli voter. The deaths of two soldiers on Mount Dov on Jan. 28 and the undermining of stability on the Lebanon border intensified the criticism against the Jan. 18 attack on the Golan, attributed to Israel, in which an Iranian general and the son of Imad Mughniyeh were killed. Netanyahu’s controversial plan to address a joint session of Congress on March 3 diverted the election agenda from the negative campaign against the “anti-Zionist left” to stinging criticism of what has been termed “a diplomatic terror attack” on Israel’s relationship with the world’s most important power. The third damaging issue for the Likud to hit the headlines again is the affair known as “Bibi-Tours,” exposed some three years ago by Channel 10 News analyst Raviv Drucker.

The investigative report of Drucker was based on documents that allegedly proved Netanyahu and his family members enjoyed travel, expensive hotel stays and prestigious dining at the expense of foreign businessmen during the period he served as finance minister (2003-2005). In September, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced that he was shutting down the investigation after no evidence was found of criminal wrongdoing.

At the same time, it seems that an annual report compiled by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira concerning the expenditure of the prime minister's residence has been gathering dust on the desk of the comptroller since August 2014. A source familiar with the case told Al-Monitor this week that such inquiries could be completed at most within three months. At the end of the week, after a series of critical articles about the delay in publication of the report, the comptroller denied that he had promised Netanyahu’s attorneys to postpone publication until the election was over.

And then, with the skies darkening throughout, Netanyahu pulled the good old “pot calling the kettle black” trick out of his hat: “Woe is me, the villains are attacking my wife!” “Anyone who wants to attack my policy in a businesslike way, is welcome. Leave my family alone,” Netanyahu wrote on Facebook following the expose of the recycled bottle deposits that Sara Netanyahu allegedly pocketed.

Is Netanyahu right in saying that the conduct of the prime minister’s wife is irrelevant to the question of who is fit to lead the state? The medical records of a prime ministerial candidate are considered the public’s business. Financial disclosure has turned into a staple of the current election campaign for candidates wishing to stand up to public scrutiny. The same goes for activities that take place under the candidate’s roof, especially those carried out at the public’s expense. He, and not she, should be required to explain why the lady is seemingly invited to interfere in public service nominations and in the formation of the coalition.

For instance in the “Bibi-Tours” affair, when Sara Netanyahu instructs, according to news reports, that a royal suite be booked for them at a posh London hotel, at the expense of a private benefactor, Benjamin is the one who should be checking who paid the thousands of pounds. A leader cannot hide behind “they’re out to get my wife” to obtain an exemption from legal and public punishment for accepting favors and goods perhaps extended to his family by virtue of his standing.

A politician’s wife is certainly entitled to privacy. When the Peres family decided that Sonya Peres would not be involved in her husband’s activities, the media left her alone. On the other hand, late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin paid with his job for the bank account his wife opened in the United States. That happened after then-Attorney General Aharon Barak (subsequently Israel’s chief justice) refused to settle for an administrative fine and announced his intention to put the couple on trial. The tremendous difference between Barak’s conduct and that of the current attorney general and state comptroller, who owe their jobs to the prime minister, is very relevant to Netanyahu’s question: “Who should lead the people?”

In the same week Netanyahu asked that his wife be left alone, he placed his wife center stage and used her for election propaganda and incitement against the left. The prime minister has devoted no fewer than five statuses to her on his official Facebook page in the past two weeks. In one of them, he lauded the example she set in the “who’s a Zionist” campaign mounted by his party against the Zionist Camp party. In a long post decorated with three photos of the first lady, the chairman of the Likud wrote: “My wife, Sara, for whom the issue of lone soldiers is dear to her heart and who accompanies and supports [the soldiers] with calm and modesty for years, greeted the new heroes with warm words upon their arrival in Israel. … These are the really important things. That’s what turns us into a strong, united nation. The common values. The human sensitivity. The mutual guarantees. In one word it’s called ‘Zionism.’”

On Saturday, Jan. 31, Nir Hefetz, the head of the Likud’s public diplomacy campaign attacked journalist Dana Weiss of Channel 2 News over her and her colleagues’ busying themselves with Sara’s bottles instead of with the question of “who will protect the children in the north.” Hefetz is quite right. Netanyahu may be forced to give up his seat as a result of the spreading smell of corrupt, personal hedonism. But one should remember this is not the main issue. The truly central issue is who will protect the children against unnecessary bloodshed, a black diplomatic horizon, deepening international isolation and growing incitement against the “other.”

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