It’s early afternoon on Wednesday in central Tel Aviv and four middle-aged men are reclining in a wood-lined chairs with paunches and large cigars. Puffs of smoke roll out of their mouths while they scroll through their cellphones.
They are partaking in the time-honored ritual of gathering in special humidified rooms to smoke with friends. But now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reported penchant for pricey tobacco has evolved into a full-blown criminal investigation, cigar shops are inundated with renewed interest.
At the Republica Tobacco Lounge in Sarona Market, one perusing soldier asked, “How much are the Montecristos?” because they are reportedly among Netanyahu’s favorites (NIS 100 to NIS 300, depending on quality).
The phenomenon of wealthy and powerful men in a love affair with rolled tobacco crosses generations, borders, and political leanings. US presidents Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy and of course Cuban president Fidel Castro are known to have been aficionados. A consecutive string of at least four Israeli prime ministers – Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon, and Netanyahu – have all partaken.
Olmert’s taste for finer things, including cigars, eventually led to a criminal investigation and conviction of bribery.
However, the current prime minister is having his smoking habit critiqued as part of an ongoing criminal investigation that Netanyahu, among other allegations, reportedly accepted hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of fine cigars from billionaire Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan in a way that breached his duty of trust as a public servant.
“People are coming in all the time asking about Bibi’s cigars now,” Tal Mousseri, owner of The Republica Tobacco Lounge in Sarona Market, said. “They are asking what Bibi is smoking, but you know the myth that everyone that smokes dresses in suits is false. There are people from all sectors of Israel.”
Netanyahu has vigorously denied any criminal wrongdoing.
“Any reasonable person knows that someone bringing their friend cigars is not a criminal offense,” the prime minister’s attorney Yaakov Weinroth said on Friday.
According to a Channel 2 report, over the course of seven to eight years Milchan gave Netanyahu expensive cigars, including iconic Cuban Montecristos, Cohiba Sigla Vs and Trinidads.
Netanyahu’s cigars would set a newcomer back a few hundred shekels, but for those looking to pick up the habit, Mousseri said equally good cigars are available for around NIS 100.
“The Cohibas are all about the name. There are other cheaper cigars that are nearly as good.”
Channel 2 contended that Netanyahu smokes NIS 15,000 to 20,000 worth of cigars each month, but according Mousseri, such a sum would necessitate smoking 50 to 100 cigars a month, (assuming the cigars range from NIS 200 to 300), so it is likely an exaggeration.
“It would be really hard to achieve that level of smoking each month,” said Mousseri.
“He is a prime minister; he does have to work sometime.”
Cigars are still a minor import, constituting less than 1% of smokers in Israel according to Levy Shlomo the general manager of Esh-Ly Cigar & Tobacco Co. Shlomo said the majority of smokers are older and middle- aged men, many of whom turn to cigars later in life as an alternative to cigarettes. (The United States Center for Disease control states that cigars are not a safe alternative to cigarettes.) Mousseri at The Republica said that he sees a growing interest in cigars from young people, saying business has “doubled” in the past seven or eight years.
Yoni Markowitz, head salesman of Pyup, which provides high-quality wine and cigars to the Orthodox community, said he has seen growing interest in Jerusalem and among tourists.
“A lot of Jewish tourists coming to Israel want to go to a good restaurant, drink good wine and smoke a good cigar,” Markotwitz said.
While the market is growing among young Israelis, former and current politicians have a long history with the tobacco product. According to Mousseri, some Knesset members – all male – frequent his shop, but declined to offer further details.
“They don’t smoke in the lounge and prefer the privacy of their home,” Mousseri said.
Two other Tel Aviv cigar shops declined to comment for this story for fear of associating themselves or their customers with political scandal.
Still, not all politicians enjoy cigars.
“I do not smoke cigars. First of all, they stink,” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said at a Haifa Leadership Conference on Wednesday, “and I only accept presents at weddings.”