Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is known for his ability to endure the challenges of countless political, international and legal tidal waves and to continue swimming against all odds.
That is how he passed David Ben-Gurion this week, breaking his record as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister in consecutive days in office. He still could pass Ben-Gurion’s record in most total days in office, if he stays in power past September 23, 2018.
But the buoyancy of a prime minister is tested when the waters are at their roughest.
Prime ministers have gotten caught in a current before and were swept away before they even knew what hit them.
Such was the case with former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was hit by one investigation after another until he ultimately was forced to resign in July 2008.
The scandals that made the most headlines were the cash envelopes (Talansky) and double billing (Rishon Tours) affairs as well as the Holyland case that landed him in prison. But few remember that his first conviction was for breach of trust in the Investment Center scandal.
Olmert was found guilty in July 2012 for what he did years earlier, back when he was minister of industry, trade and employment, illicitly arranging investment opportunities for clients of his close friend and attorney Uri Messer. The clients received benefits worth tens of millions of shekels.
That scandal was raised this week, because it looks eerily similar to the current submarine scandal that is threatening to submerge Netanyahu and his trusted lawyer, confidant and right-hand man for decades, David Shimron.
Netanyahu and Shimron are expected to be questioned in a criminal investigation Attorney- General Avichai Mandelblit opened Wednesday into the purchase of German submarines for the navy. Shimron worked for the Israeli representative of ThyssenKrupp, the company selling the submarines, and pushed to buy them over the objections of the defense establishment, including then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Channel 10 reporter Raviv Drucker revealed a 2014 email from Defense Ministry legal adviser Ahaz Ben-Ari, in which he complained that Shimron was pressuring him to cancel an international tender for naval vessels to be used to guard Israel’s natural gas resources, and instead purchase them from ThyssenKrupp.
Ben-Ari wrote in the letter that Shimron had told him that Netanyahu himself asked to cancel the tender.
In a massive acquisition, the submarines were purchased from ThyssenKrupp, not because of Shimron but due to a massive discount from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for whom Shimron mockingly said people would accuse him of working as well. ThyssenKrupp’s long history of corruption problems added to the depth of the scandal.
Netanyahu and Shimron have firmly denied ever speaking about any German vessels. But the email appeared to indicate otherwise, new details are revealed every night, and it is already clear that even if Netanyahu knew nothing, something fishy was happening just outside the glass-enclosed wing in the Prime Minister’s Office known as the “aquarium.”
In one way, the submarine scandal is already worse than any of the affairs involving Olmert. His involvement in the Investment Center, Talansky, Rishon Tours, and Holyland scandals all took place before he became prime minister.
Olmert’s attempts to silence his secretary Shula Zaken, which extended his prison term, happened after he left office.
Netanyahu is prime minister, and if anything happened, it happened under his watch.
While there are also other key differences, there are plenty of similarities between the submarine scandal and the Investment Center affair that could torpedo Netanyahu’s premiership, if the investigation reveals more evidence beneath the surface.
Messer was Olmert’s business partner in a law office before he entered politics. Shimron’s relationship also predates Netanyahu’s political career. He is Netanyahu’s cousin, knows how he obtained every shekel and dollar he has ever made, and has always ensured that his finances have been completely above water.
While it is almost unthinkable that Shimron would ever harm Netanyahu in any way, that is also what they said about Messer and Zaken before they became witnesses for the prosecution against Olmert.
Zaken in particular said repeatedly that Olmert had been a father figure to her throughout her adult life.
Anything can happen when a man is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The Investment Center affair was a clear case of violating conflict of interest agreements that advisers to ministers must submit regularly.
The document submitted by Shimron is currently under the police’s periscope.
There is also the timing of the two prime ministers’ legal problems.
Like Olmert, it is happening at the time of the interregnum, the 10-and-a-half weeks between an American election and inauguration – a period of time that has been fraught with stormy waters for Israel over the past four decades.
But the similarities stop there. Olmert tried to distract the public from his legal woes by trying to reach a peace accord with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It is extremely unlikely that Netanyahu will take the plunge.
Netanyahu has a hostile relationship with the press that has sunk to a low to which Olmert never plummeted.
There is also an ocean of differences between how the media views the wives of the two prime ministers. That poor relationship only gives more incentive for top investigative reporters to try to catch the biggest fish.
The final and perhaps most important difference between Olmert then and Netanyahu now is Netanyahu then. He was a strong and savvy opposition leader who was seen by the public as Olmert’s heir apparent. Netanyahu has no Netanyahu to threaten to sink him.
This past week alone, many possible alternatives to Netanyahu floundered politically.
Ya’alon looked like a ship that had been grounded at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference at the capital’s Waldorf Astoria hotel.
He insulted US President Barack Obama, but unlike his successor, Avigdor Liberman, who made every media outlet in Israel, Ya’alon’s speech was not detected by the media’s sonar.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett was more energized at the event than Ya’alon. Bennett even floated new ideas for the Palestinians.
But Bennett apparently did not understand his target audience. He appeared to stop for applause when he expressed hope that US President- elect Donald Trump would move the American Embassy to Jerusalem. The crowd of ambassadors and diplomats did not clap, resulting in an awkward silence.
Netanyahu’s former No. 2, Gideon Sa’ar, spoke at another conference – organized by the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) newspaper Hamodia.
He wore a kippa and told nice stories from the Torah portion of the week, but he looked like a fish out of water.
And former IDF chief Benny Gantz received a State Comptroller’s Report about his preparations for war in Gaza that could end his political career before his ship has even disembarked from port.
Without serious political opponents in his sites, Netanyahu has a clear advantage over Olmert. That alone could make it much harder for the submarine scandal to drown him.
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