This is a widespread phenomenon that has engulfed large parts of the political system, from the prime minister to several ministers of state, members of the Knesset, and city mayors. Not a day goes by when fresh news of the mishandling of political power for financial and other kinds of gain does not come to light. The epidemic proportions of this phenomenon lead one to wonder whether the police have time to deal with any other issues, and worse, to ask: What does this reveal about Israeli society and its future? Corruption and bad governance is threatening Israel’s long-term well-being and survival.
Throughout its short history, Israel’s political system has been no stranger to corruption; however, this destructive phenomenon has gathered momentum in recent times. In the past decade a former prime minister, as well as former ministers of the Interior, of Finance and of Health, as well as a number of mayors, have been given prolonged jail sentences for taking bribes; on top of this, a former president has been convicted of rape and other sex crimes.
The level of disgust expressed by ordinary citizens at the behavior of public servants, elected or appointed, has reached new heights, which explains the big rallies. Such gatherings have not been seen since 2011, when hundreds of thousands camped in the streets to protest against the rising cost of living and the lack of affordable accommodation, while political corruption became rife.
Top of the list of corruption affairs is the long running soap opera known as the Netanyahu family. The prime minister himself is implicated in what police suspect is corrupt behaviour in at least two major affairs, and two that took place in his close political vicinity. Even if the investigations may never amount to indictments — although there are strong indications that they will — taking “presents” valued at hundreds of thousands of Israeli shekels in the form of expensive cigars, champagne and jewellery from friends who happen to have vested economic interests in the country is immoral and inappropriate behaviour for an elected leader. Just as immoral and inappropriate is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conversation with a leading newspaper publisher offering an exchange of political favors for economic gains. It is a sign of a leader who has been too long in power and is abusing it to support his and his family’s hedonistic lifestyle.
There is also more than a hint of the loss of any sense of judgment, accompanied by a strong sense of entitlement. Couldn’t he buy his own cigars and champagne, if only to avoid risking public exposure of this kind of behavior? But it is not only Netanyahu. It is his wife Sara, who is constantly in the headlines for mistreating employees who work for the Netanyahus, and increasingly the behavior of their eldest son, Yair, which is a source of concern. In a recording that has recently come to light, Netanyahu’s son is heard asking a friend, who happens to be the son of a gas tycoon, for cash to pay for a strip club, implying that it was a small favor compared to the alleged benefits worth billions from Netanyahu Sr’s help in securing a gas deal. The protesters in the streets are revolted by Netanyahu Jr’s language regarding women as heard in the recording, and also by the fact that he is chauffeured around for his nights out at taxpayers’ expense, including the cost of his bodyguards. The content of what he said while inebriated merits an in-depth police investigation.
Ordinary Israelis who find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet have had enough of a political and business elite led by Benjamin Netanyahu taking advantage of their position to enrich themselves.
It has also became a national embarrassment to see the shameful routine of police investigators entering the prime minister’s official residence to question him about the alleged giving and taking of bribes and the misuse of public funds. For the protesters it has put a large question mark over his fitness to continue to govern.
However, it is not just the prime minister but those around him, including his lawyers, who are alleged to have taken bribes in a deal to purchase submarines from Germany, a deal that ended up with Israel buying more submarines, at enormous cost, than its strategic needs require. In addition, David Bitan, Netanyahu’s enforcer in the Knessest and a close associate, has been interrogated by the police on suspicion of bribery, money laundering, fraud and breach of trust during his time as deputy mayor of Rishon Letzion, a city near Tel Aviv. To makes things worse, Bitan himself, before he was forced to resign as the coalition government’s whip, was pushing for legislation that would have barred the police from making recommendations to the attorney general as to whether to indict at the end of the highest-profile investigations.
It is not an isolated case that has brought people on to the streets to demonstrate, but an accumulation of such events that has left the impression of a political system that is rotten to the core. At a time when hard working, ordinary people are finding it increasingly difficult to pay the rent and make ends meet, small political and business elites are enjoying an exceptionally high standard of living and conveniently looking after each other.
Netanyahu is addressing the issue in the only way he knows — denying the existence of the problem, and accusing the media and the left of a witch hunt. Moreover, he is spending more and more time on trips abroad, thus avoiding the police while playing the statesman. In his audacity, his last line of defence is to relay a tacit message that for all his personal faults Israel has no better leader who can ensure its security and prosperity. It high time for a political alternative to prove him wrong.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.