Twenty years to the day Benjamin Netanyahu won his first election, scraping past Shimon Peres by less than 30,000 votes, he received an anniversary gift: the police recommendation to press charges against his wife for misuse of public funds for the upkeep of their private residence in Caesarea.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Netayahu’s former cabinet secretary and personal choice for his current job, now has to rule on two cases of allegations against the Netanyahus’ personal finances.
The first is the so-called Bibi Tours case – the investigation into suspicions of illegal funding and double-billing of the family’s trips abroad when Netanyahu was finance minister over a decade ago. But unlike that affair, the prime-minister’s-residences file appears more pinpointed and does not fall under a statute of limitations.
Sara Netanyahu is the main suspect in this case. Her husband has not even been questioned – for some reason, the police have accepted that he was not involved or even aware of the way taxpayers’ money may have been fraudulently used to maintain their weekend home.
But even if he remains unscathed by the criminal and legal proceedings, an indictment of his wife, the most influential woman in Israel, and a senior official in his office over the misuse of public funds will have a major impact on the prime minister. That is of course if Mrs. Netanyahu is indicted.
At this stage it’s still hypothetical, but if Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife finds herself sitting in a criminal court he can follow two precedents of his predecessors – that of Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon.
Thirty-nine years ago Rabin resigned, ending his first term as prime minister over a foreign bank account held illegally by his wife Leah. That much is true, but the myth of the noble Rabin selflessly sacrificing his political career to stick by his wife has been greatly exaggerated over the years.
It’s true that when the account was opened, Rabin – as ambassador to the United States – and his wife were allowed to have a foreign account. Not closing the account upon their return to Israel could be regarded as little more than a technicality, and anyway, today Israelis are allowed to hold accounts abroad.
In addition, the money in the American account was not the “tiny sum” they had originally claimed, but $90,000 the ambassador had received for lectures. The Rabins never paid tax on this money and the ambassador shouldn’t have been taking fees for giving lectures in the first place.
The resignation wasn’t a clear-cut affair either. In early 1977, when Haaretz originally reported that the prime minister’s wife had an illegal account, the government tried to get Leah off the hook with a fine, like other returning Israelis who had failed to close foreign accounts.
But a further report that Mrs. Rabin had ordered a relative to destroy all the bank documents alerted then-Attorney General Aharon Barak, who decided to press ahead with criminal proceedings against the couple. In the showdown between the old party of power and the young attorney general, it was Rabin who gave in. He couldn’t formally resign the premiership as his government had already fallen over an unrelated political crisis, so he went on leave until the election.
Ultimately, it was Leah who took the rap, standing trial and being fined a quarter of a million lira. Her husband gained immunity from prosecution by resigning as Labor Party leader and not running as the party’s candidate for prime minister.
Peres, who replaced him, went on to lose to Likud’s Menachem Begin. Rabin claimed he had chosen to resign and share his wife’s ordeal because his “upbringing, tradition and beliefs” would not let him remain prime minister with the slightest moral stain. His critics claimed that Barak left him no choice but to leave office or face the music.
But while Rabin’s conduct has been mythologized over the decades, there is a much more recent and less noble precedent concerning the indictment of a prime minister’s closest relative. Ariel Sharon’s premiership was bedeviled by a string of corruption allegations regarding illegal loans and money laundering financing both the prime minister’s private household and his political campaigns.
The investigation that got the furthest was the one into the affairs of a shell company called Annex Research, which had served as a slush fund for Sharon’s campaign in the 1999 Likud primary.
Like many politicians in a similar predicament, Sharon professed ignorance of the details of his campaign finances, leaving those lower down to carry the can. But in this case the main man managing his primary-election headquarters was Omri Sharon, the elder of his two surviving sons, and after the death of his wife Lily in 2000 the closest person to him. Omri brazened it out through years of investigations – many believed he was covering for his father who by then was prime minister – until finally reaching a plea bargain. His indictment in November 2005 came only a few weeks before his father suffered a second stroke that left him in an eight-year coma from which he never awoke.
Whether Sharon Sr. was aware of what his son and other loyal aides were doing on his behalf will never be known for sure. When in February 2006, Omri was sentenced to nine months in prison (later reduced to seven months), Judge Edna Bekenstein castigated Sharon Jr., asking: “Is everything kosher in the name of admiration for the father? Does the power of the law retreat in the face of belief in the father’s strength?”
By then the father could not answer for himself. Just as in the case of the slain Rabin, history has been kind to Sharon, and the conviction of his son for his campaign’s sins is never mentioned in the eulogies.
Netanyahu will of course apply every possible overt and covert pressure to convince the attorney general not to press charges. But if Mendelblit goes along with the police recommendation, Netanyahu will face the greatest dilemma of his political life – and it will be entirely up to him and his wife. Resign or let her take the rap on her own? Do a Rabin or a Sharon?