Two years after Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Britain to defend Israel, the opposition leader and former prime minister is defending himself.
An Israeli television expose over the weekend revealed that Netanyahu rang up a sizable bill while on a speaking tour of London during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Channel 10 reported that the weeklong trip cost more than 130,000 shekels, or $32,000, and included first-class flights for Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, a suite in a luxury hotel, gourmet restaurants and bars, and at least one visit to the theater.
The report, picked up by other Israeli media, prompted stormy debates about Netanyahu’s conduct, though the criticism focused as much on decorum as on legal considerations.
“Was it really proper for a public official to be going to plays while our soldiers were fighting in Lebanon?” asked one radio talk-show host.
Netanyahu, of the Likud Party, fired back in the style reminiscent of his often contentious term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, when he was dogged by graft charges and an often less-than-sympatheric intelligentsia.
Vowing to sue Channel 10 for slander, he denied wrongdoing and accused political opponents of running a smear campaign aimed at hobbling his bid to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
“Our stay in London didn’t cost the State of Israel even a single shekel and was financed entirely by Israel Bonds and the Jewish community,” Netanyahu told the Yediot Achronot newspaper. “I paid for my private expenses out of my own pocket.
“I worked from morning until night giving interviews to the international media, holding press conferences and holding meetings with journalists, newspaper editors, leaders and members of the Jewish community in order to repel the Arab propaganda. I operated in the service of the State of Israel.”
Few dispute that Netanyahu, with his fluent English and incisive debating skills, was and remains among Israel’s best advocates abroad.
Interviews on the Britain’s Sky and BBC television channels, in which he faced down censure of Israeli tactics against Hezbollah guerrillas, became mainstays of the YouTube viewing circuit.
Gilad Hardan, a Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu ally, told Israel Radio that he felt the affair was being blown up beyond proportion because of media prejudice. Hardan argued that similar trips abroad by another seasoned Israeli spokesman, dovish President Shimon Peres, would not receive the same attention.
The left-leaning Ha’aretz newspaper, normally quick to seize on alleged malfeasance by public officials, could offer only tepid speculation as to what laws Netanyahu might have broken. The newspaper referred to a ban on civil servants receiving unreasonably expensive gifts, though that left open the question of whether food and board, no matter how luxurious, could count as gifts.
Ha’aretz also said there was uncertainty over Netanyahu’s claim that he had cleared his wife’s participation on the trip with the Knesset Ethics Committee.
Yediot pundit Nahum Barnea accused Netanyahu of “hedonism” as opposed to corruption.
“The difference between the two types is tremendous: The corrupt politician takes and gives something in return; the hedonistic politician takes and gives nothing in return,” Barnea said.
Noting that Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have also drawn scrutiny for what are perceived as lavish lifestyles, Barnea argued that the latest flap surrounding Netanyahu touched a national nerve because of wage gaps felt especially strongly in working-class towns like Sderot that bear the burden of Palestinian rocket attacks.
“The result is alienation if not obtuseness towards the real difficulties facing the people that they are supposed to serve,” he said. “Like the protagonists of ‘Animal Farm,’ George Orwell’s prophetic novel, they have learned that everyone is equal but there are some who are more equal than others.”