Tel Aviv Diary: In Israel, an Election Smothered in Scandal

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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem January 25, 2015. Baz Ratner/Reuters

Last night the latest Israeli elections polls came out. For the first time in this campaign, cycle polls showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party with a clear lead over Yitzhak Herzog's HaMachaneh HaTzioni (The Zionist Camp) Party.

These results confounded many, who expected to see a decline in support for the Likud as a result of recent revelations about the alleged actions of Netanyahu and his wife. Instead, exposure of these latest allegations seem to have had the opposite effect: bolstering support for the Likud.

As is often the case, good insights often come from taxi drivers. Yesterday afternoon I came across one such vocal driver. When I asked him what he thought of current news events, he responded with a diatribe against Tzipi Livni and Yitzchak Herzog.

The cabby contended that Herzog and Livni were the corrupt ones, citing that Herzog was responsible for never answering questions about his role in fundraising for former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak's campaign in 1999. He followed up with a claim that Livni stole a primary election from Shaul Mofaz.

Despite the fact that the driver's rant was a completely irrelevant rejoinder, it is similar to the responses offered by the Likud to the reports of scandal attributed to their ranks that have come to light over the last two days. How, in spite of mounting negative revelations, can the increase in Likud support be explained? In short, the explanation is: When your family is attacked you return home, circle the wagons and fight back. It is almost as if the Likud dreamed up these alleged scandals to convince their supporters to "come home" to the party and defend it.

So, what scandals have been brought to light? There are in fact two and a half different stories, or "scandals," alleged against Netanyahu and one claimed scandal against the opposition filling the airways over the past few days.

The first scandal involves a previously exposed scandal, "Bibi Tours," that revolved around trips abroad Netanyahu took while he served as finance minister in the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. According to the allegations, Netanyahu double-billed certain groups and organizations for his trips. Additionally, it is claimed he had influential people from Israel and abroad pay for the airfare of his wife and kids.

The attorney general currently serving under Netanyahu decided not to go forward with the investigation, claiming too much time had elapsed to investigate criminal charges. Nonetheless, the state comptroller launched an investigation. However, that investigation seemed to lose steam when a new state comptroller was appointed, with Netanyahu's strong support, after the previous state comptroller retired.

A few days ago rumors started spreading that a report on the affair had in fact been completed two years ago, but had been buried. Two days ago, Raviv Drucker, a television reporter, published a draft of the investigation's findings confirming earlier reports that during his tenure as finance minister, Netanyahu's family trips were indeed paid for by people who should not have done so and, as such, the report continued, Netanyahu had violated public trust.

The second scandal surrounds the management of Netanyahu's official residence. The state comptroller has been working on a report about the management (or more accurately, mismanagement) of the prime minister's residence over the past two years.

This past week the state comptroller, Joseph Shapiro, was asked by Netanyahu's lawyer to delay issuing the report—a request that was well reported in the media. As a result, the state comptroller's office announced that the report would be released within the next two weeks—i.e., long before the upcoming election.

This morning Shapiro announced that, based on the report's findings, the actions that took place at the prime minister's residence "deviated from norms of good governing and might have indeed been criminal." The state comptroller's findings relate to the mini-scandal, part of a larger potential scandal hovering over Netanyahu, in which the prime minister's wife, Sarah, had been accused of pocketing money from deposits received from returned alcohol and beverage bottles, on bottles originally paid for by the government.

The larger potential scandal involves the level of expenditures on what an average Israeli would surely consider luxury items at the official residence.

The Likud's response to these scandals has been an attempt to create a scandal by pointing a finger at an organization called "V15." V15, formed by two young Israelis, was created with the goal of replacing the current government in 2015. V15 has been running a campaign to convince Israelis to vote out the current government.

The V15 organization has received 95 percent of its funds from S. Daniel Abraham and Daniel Lubetsky, both Americans. The Likud claims this is a violation of Israel's election laws, which make it illegal for Israeli parties to receive foreign financing for election campaigns.

Initially, Likud spokesmen claimed that President Barack Obama was indirectly involved in the V15 efforts. However, they quickly dropped that claim. That being said, most independent observers and legal analysts say that since V15 is not calling on people to vote for a specific party and has been careful not to coordinate their actions with any party, they are not violating the letter of Israeli elections law.

Everyone agrees that the actions of V15 probably violate the spirit of the law, but no more than the actions of Sheldon Adelson, who single-handedly funds Yisrael Hayom, a newspaper that is distributed free-of-charge and unconditionally supports Netanyahu.

To date, the Likud has been successful in deflecting much of the attention that would have been generated by the alleged scandals involving Netanyahu by using the V15 allegation to its advantage.

Another event that has worked in the Likud's favor this week is the failed attempt by the Bayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home Party) head, Naftali Bennet, to appoint Eli Ohana (a former soccer star) to a reserved spot on their Knesset party list. Bennet has been trying to transform his party (previously called The National Religious Party) into a party that would attract a greater secular following, and thus become a good alternative to non-religious traditional Likud voters.

Ohana's appointment was vehemently opposed by many of the rabbis of the party, ostensibly because he was a soccer player who had played routinely on the Sabbath and thus should not represent the party. Many claimed, however, that opposition to Ohana was especially strong because he is an Israeli of Sephardi origin (one whose lineage is from an Arab country). Results of the latest poll show that this move hurt the Bayit HaYehudi party, who lost 2-3 seats to the Likud, thereby helping make the Likud the single largest party.

If this was not enough excitement, the ongoing investigation into the alleged corruption perpetrated by members of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party continues. No one knows when Yisrael Beiteinu may again take front and center in the news.

While I was having breakfast with a friend this morning discussing politics, we were interrupted by a man in his 70s, named Shlomo, sitting at the next table. Shlomo claimed to have been a former political operative of the Labor party. He warned us that we were missing the really big story of the past week—and that that was the uniting of all four Arab parties into one unified list.

This long anticipated unification could result in much higher turnout among the Arab population, and thus significantly affect that balance of power between right wing and left wing.

The final irony of these elections may be that Lieberman is fighting to ensure that his party has enough support to remain above the newly raised threshold for representation in the parliament, a threshold that, in an ironic twist, was his idea to raise.

Lieberman hoped, in part, to reduce the power of the Arab parties in the Knesset. Instead, the Arab parties have been strengthened and his party may find itself on the outside looking in.

Multimedia historian Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com. An archive of his recent daily reports from Tel-Aviv can be found here.

Tel Aviv Diary: In Israel, an Election Smothered in Scandal | Opinion