Where ‘Bibi Tours’ could take us

Will the latest scandal involving the prime minister trigger a chain of events leading to Benjamin Netanyahu’s decline and fall or will it turn out to be just one more affair that won’t change much?

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends a meeting of the Likud party in the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends a meeting of the Likud party in the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE SO-CALLED “Bibi Tours” affair – suspected abuses and possible illegalities in the funding of overseas trips by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when out of office (1999-2003) and as finance minister (2003-2005) – went through several incarnations before its latest and potentially damning revival.
In late 2015, ahead of a scathingly critical state comptroller’s report, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein reopened the investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing, which his successor Avichai Mandelblit is zealously following up.
In order to get to the heart of the matter, I suggest starting from the end. True, at the time of writing, late May 2016, the outcome remains unknown. But the possible scenarios have serious implications for Israel’s political future. “Bibi Tours” could turn out to be just one more affair among many that won’t change very much; but it could also trigger a chain of events leading to Netanyahu’s political, and perhaps even personal, decline and fall.
There are, of course, other possibilities in between. It could lead to power struggles between Netanyahu and the institutional gatekeepers; or to tensions within his Likud party; or to reinvigoration of the political opposition.
In Netanyahu’s case, the fact that the outcome is not clear is in itself something new.
There are at least three reasons for the worrying uncertainty from the prime minister’s point of view. Firstly, the state comptroller’s report is only partial. It does not include the more serious findings. These are omitted because the state comptroller took the view that they needed to be examined for potential criminal import. When the comptroller suspects there may be a criminal dimension to matters he is investigating, he is procedurally bound to turn the findings over to the attorney general for further investigation and possible indictment – which is precisely what he did.
Secondly, Mandelblit, the newly incumbent attorney general, is a smart and talented professional of impeccable public integrity.
In contrast to Weinstein and contrary to what his critics on the Left think of him, Mandelblit is a jurist of genuine stature. He could well decide to deepen the investigation, and like the jailed former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu could find himself seriously entangled.
Third, in the week in which the “Bibi Tours” report was published, Netanyahu announced the appointment of Avigdor Liberman, a man who had been at the center of a huge corruption scandal, as defense minister. One leading journalist, Guy Rolnik, founding editor of the economic daily, “The Marker,” called on Israelis to take to the streets in demonstrations against the appointment – precisely because of Liberman’s problematic public record and the fact that on the face of it, he seems to be corrupt.
If we go back to the precedent set in the Olmert/Talansky affair, in which Olmert received large sums of cash from a supportive American businessman, gathering public momentum can adversely affect the political and personal fate of prime ministers who are lax about appearances, and fail to project moral probity.
Bibi Tours began in March 2011, with an exposé by Raviv Drucker, one the more influential journalists in Israel today, on his investigative TV program “The Source.”
Drucker’s dramatic report contained a string of hair-raising revelations including double billing for airfares, funding by private business people with interests in Israel, obscure funding of private flights by members of the Netanyahu family, extravagant expenses covered by private donors, and more.
The report sparked an immediate enquiry in the State Comptroller’s Office led by Commander (res.) Nahum Levi, a former deputy head of the police fraud squad. Levi had been a member of the police team investigating earlier corruption allegations against the prime minister and Netanyahu confidants urged that he be removed from the case claiming he harbored a “personal vendetta” against the prime minster. Then State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss turned them away.
Nevertheless, the investigation soon set in motion an attempted Watergate-style whitewash. In September 2012, just two months after taking office, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira fired Levi. Shapira had been appointed to the job after being interviewed and vetted by Netanyahu’s personal lawyer and close confidant David Shimron.
Shapira decided not to publish a report, but rather to transfer the findings to then Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. Almost two years later, Weinstein, the man who had closed the main case against Liberman, announced his decision to close the case against Netanyahu as well. He did so without anyone in law enforcement taking the trouble to speak to Drucker about his serious allegations.
With the potentially criminal case closed, the Bibi Tours affair went back to the State Comptroller’s Office for it to publish a report on possible administrative or institutional irregularities. Publication had been deferred while the attorney general deliberated on the criminal aspects.
But by the time the case went back to the State Comptroller’s Office a few key things had changed. For example, the unit examining the case had been placed under the direct authority of the Director General Eli Marzel. Secondly, relations between Netanyahu and Shapira had soured. Moreover, the comptroller was by now fully cognizant of the fact that his poor public standing was a direct result of his perceived subservience to Netanyahu.
With Shapira’s full backing, Director General Marzel and other members of the State Comptroller’s Office started digging.
What they unearthed was, prima facie, of an exceptionally serious nature. The fact that they knew that this time they would be writing a report in the office’s name also spurred them on. Moreover, they had received the responses of the various parties under investigation likely to be hurt by the publication of the report, which led to still more findings.
Finally, in an unprecedented step, the comptroller again turned to the attorney general and urged him to reexamine his decision to close the case and launch a new investigation into potential criminal wrongdoing.
To Weinstein’s credit, he did not take the easy way out and reject the comptroller’s request out of hand. On the contrary, he answered in the affirmative. Moreover, the fact that the current attorney general is stronger and more resolute than his predecessor is another key change in the equation that should worry Netanyahu.
In parallel, in late May, the State Comptroller’s Office published a report on findings that constitute public misconduct, but without criminal connotations.
There is something dialectic in a report of this kind. It paints a sorry picture of one the most fundamental civil service values – the loyalty office bearers owe the public, including the unwritten obligation to make personal sacrifices for the public’s sake and give up extravagant lifestyles, and the obligation, written in stone, to avoid conflicts of interest and not to receive gifts. On the other hand, the very publication of the report shows that such phenomena are not taken lightly in Israel. Although the report says at one point “everyone did it,” that sentence is also meant to emphasize that it was not acceptable that they did so and, all the more in that case, that Netanyahu, the man at the head of the pyramid, did so.
I repeat what I said at the outset: The outcome of the “Bibi Tours” affair remains hazy – but, in its latest incarnation, it could have far-reaching political consequences. 
Dr. Doron Navot, a political scientist at Haifa University, has written extensively on corruption in government