One of the most appealing things about Menachem Begin was his austere lifestyle. He owned a two-room apartment in Tel Aviv, which he refused to leave, until he became Prime Minister. After his resignation in 1983, he returned to live out the rest of his life there. Ben-Gurion had a nice house in Tel Aviv, but spent the last 10 years of his life in a small so-called “hut” on Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. There was one area in which Begin spent more than Ben-Gurion – in keeping with the philosophy of hadar propounded by his mentor, Jabotinsky – his necktie budget.
Some other Prime Ministers were less appealing in this regard. Ehud Barak was born a kibbutznik, served 35 years in the IDF and then held various political positions. In 2012 he sold a Tel Aviv apartment for about $7 million. He told an interviewer in 2015 that his net worth was close to $10-$15 million, saying that he had made good investments. I’m sure an IDF Chief of Staff is well-paid, but it’s very hard to explain his degree of success convincingly.
Today the news in Israel is full of political-financial scandal. There are at least three police investigations of PM Netanyahu going on, and it is almost certain that Sara, his wife, will be indicted for misusing funds related to the management of the PM’s official residence. A number of important officials and prior officials are being investigated for bribery in connection with the purchase of submarines and other vessels from Germany, including the former commander of Israel’s Navy. Today (Wednesday) the name of an officer that has been arrested in the affair was released, the decorated former commander of the elite Shayetet 13 unit.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who once served 22 months of a three-year sentence for bribery, is presently being investigated by police for real estate transgressions. And of course former PM Ehud Olmert was recently released from prison after serving 16 months of a 19-month sentence for various corruption and bribery offenses.
Israel is in the Middle East, and we can blame it on that. Or perhaps we are just doing a better job of arresting and punishing corrupt politicians than some other countries. It’s hard to tell.
PM Netanyahu has maintained that the left-leaning media and legal establishment have been persecuting him, and wish to overthrow the results of a democratic election by legal maneuvers. “They won’t find anything because there isn’t anything,” he has been fond of saying. The Left insists that he deserves to be in jail and soon will be. The truth is probably somewhere in between. It will take some time before we know precisely where, in a process that is matched in its tediousness only by coalition negotiations. Personally, I think that anything he did will turn out to be small potatoes, compared to Olmert for example.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigations, I think the Israeli public is tired of Netanyahu, who has been PM since March 2009. The other day I heard a man explaining to his small child that they shouldn’t cross the street on a red light because “we are not Bibi. Bibi always crosses on red” (the child responded “who’s Bibi?”). The Right believes that he is not aggressive enough toward Hamas and Iran and that he has given in too many times to US pressure against construction in Judea and Samaria. The Left believes that he is “anti-peace,” by which they mean that he hasn’t given in enough to US pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. Both sides are tired of his personality.
Could the corruption investigations force him out as the left-wing media hope? I doubt it. Even if the PM is indicted as a result of one or more of the investigations against him, he is not required by law to resign. And why should he? Despite the investigations, his party is rising in the polls.
Even a corrupt PM can make good decisions (consider Olmert’s bombing the Syrian nuclear reactor precisely 10 years ago). And Bibi has made a lot of good decisions, resulting in a relatively peaceful tenure, an expanding economy, and diplomatic gains. But the main thing that has kept him in power through the last couple of elections is that he is thought to be competent in matters of economics and matters of security – and his competition is not.
I think, and many Israelis agree with me, that with the war in Syria winding up, and the strengthening of Iran and its proxies – a result of the removal of sanctions and cash infusions from the nuclear deal – the chance of war involving Israel has been greatly increased. The feeling that conflict could be around the corner is widespread.
People want an experienced hand on the tiller. And security challenges tend to push people to the right. Neither Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid or Yitzhak Herzog of the Zionist Union have “security credentials.” Moshe Ya’alon, who does, launched a trial balloon to create a new party back in March, which went nowhere. Naftali Bennett, who is bound by the limited appeal of his mostly-religious party, would join a coalition with Bibi. So if a new election were called soon, the Likud and its right-wing coalition partners would probably gain seats, rather than lose them.
This isn’t a perfect world, and we don’t have a perfect Prime Minister (although he is a lot better than his opponents give him credit for).
But he may still be the best person for the job.