Rumours of lavish spending and luxury gifts from wealthy friends have long swirled around the Israeli prime minister, but for the most part, they have been just that – rumours. But times, they may be a’ changing.
Last week saw Benjamin Netanyahu interviewed under caution for five hours, his second such grilling. On the side-lines, senior Likud officials are reported to be sounding out replacements, while leaked details of two ongoing investigations are like catnip to the Israeli press.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli politics’ ultimate survivor, now looks caught in the hairs.
He is no stranger to controversy. In 1997, during his first stint as PM, prosecutors agonised over whether to charge him over a scandal involving political appointments. Three years later, when he and wife Sara moved out of the official residence, police recommended they be charged for taking silverware, carpets and other valuables with them. In 2013, he was revealed to be spending thousands of pounds’ worth of public money on ice cream, and last year, press reports showed his personal lawyer had a stake in a company selling submarines to Israel.
More than once has Bibi repeated that “nothing will be found because there is nothing,” but the case of Ehud Olmert shows that Israeli kings can fall when it comes to corruption allegations. Israel’s police and judiciary, for their part, care not for someone’s status when investigating alleged crimes.
Why is he being investigated? Last week it emerged that he was being questioned about accepting designer suits and overseas trips for his son from World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, the billionaire who inherited the cosmetics firm.
This week Israeli media have now divulged that the second police probe was initiated because Netanyahu was overheard discussing political support in return for favours. In a nutshell, the allegation is that he peddles influence.
The first case concerns allegations of “gifts” from billionaire friends (cigars for him, pink Champagne for his wife, Sara) who he then supports at a diplomatic level when it comes to their ten-year U.S. visa applications.
Who are these friends? One has been named as Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes, a wealthy media tycoon and publisher of the Yedioth Ahronot newspaper. According to Israel’s well-respected Channel 2 TV, Bibi and Noni sought to negotiate favourable coverage of him, in return for measures to weaken Yedioth Ahronot’s competitor Israel Hayom. The latter is owned by U.S. casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who is one of Netanyahu’s key backers worth an estimated $31 billion.
Recordings of conversations were revealed when police seized the phone of Bibi’s former chief of staff back in July. Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper, quotes the PM as suggesting “huge financial benefits” would flow from glowing articles.
“Coordinating benefits with a media outlet for positive coverage is governmental blackmailing,” said Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On. “He acts like a wheeler- dealer and it proves that he has been prime minister for too long. He should resign.”
Another Netanyahu friend is Israeli-born TV mogul Arnon Milchan, the man beyind cult films ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Pretty Woman.’ Neither Milchan nor Netanyahu deny that Milchan has showered the premier in lavish gifts. The problem is the suggestion that Bibi pressed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Milchan’s U.S. visa application.
Netanyahu dismisses all this as “wrong, incessant pressure that media elements are applying on law enforcement officials”. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit may agree and find nothing criminal contained herein. Even if Bibi is indicted, he would not need to resign, say his parliamentary supporters.
But whatever the outcome, the PM’s reputation has been undeniably damaged, with suggestions that he is ‘for sale’. Political enemies say enough is enough. “Those with integrity among his ministers will be forced to lead him out or to lose their world as well,” tweeted former prime minister Ehud Barak. “An end to the foot-dragging,” he added.
In the end, ministers may not need to. One of the world’s richest men, Adelson has poured millions of dollars into the campaign chests of Netanyahu’s American supporters, and will not take kindly to the Israeli PM’s secret willingness to stymie his Israeli newspaper in order to curry favour with a rival. Beware the wrath of a casino magnate scorned.