A few weeks before Ehud Olmert stepped down as prime minister in March 2009, he met with Benjamin Netanyahu. Within a few days, Netanyahu would be returning to the Prime Minister’s Office almost a decade after the end of his first term, and the two men met, as leaders do, to transition and review some of the pressing issues on the nation’s agenda.
At one point during the conversation, the issue of security for former prime ministers came up. According to government regulations at the time – and still today – former prime ministers continue to receive security and bodyguards for five years after the end of their term, or for as long as the country’s intelligence agencies think they are needed. Netanyahu suggested that Olmert use his last few days in office to pass a cabinet resolution requiring the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to extend the term.
Olmert didn’t like the idea. On his way out, he said, it would not look good if he passed such a resolution. He had a different proposal: Olmert told Netanyahu that in one of his last cabinet meetings, he had passed a NIS 650 million-decision to fund the construction of a new Prime Minister’s Office and Residence. I won’t benefit from the decision, Olmert said, but this way I took the heat for passing a costly plan instead of you.
As for security for former prime ministers, Olmert suggested that Netanyahu pass that decision once he took office. It would look, he told the incoming prime minister, like you are caring for a former prime minister who just left office and not for yourself.
The proposal never panned out. While Olmert passed the decision for the new PMO, Netanyahu overturned it in his first cabinet meeting as new prime minister in March 2009, only to again – as is so often the case in politics – re-approve it four years later. A decision on extending the term of security for former prime ministers, needless to say, was never made.
It’s worth keeping this story in mind after the publication this week of a recording in which Netanyahu’s oldest son, Yair, is heard gallivanting between Tel Aviv strip joints and bars while insulting women, all under the watchful eye of a state-funded security guard, driver and car. Yair and Netanyahu’s other son, Avner, both have full-time security (it is interesting that his daughter from his first marriage, Noa, does not).
While the publication of the Yair Netanyahu recording was a huge embarrassment for the prime minister and his family, it was a legitimate news item since it raised legitimate questions about the state’s funding of security guards and a car for the junior Netanyahu. This is a legitimate debate, but one that can only be answered by security professionals. If they determine that the Netanyahu boys require bodyguards, then for me, that is enough.
It is easy to be a populist; it is harder to make tough and unpopular decisions. If the guards are called off and something, God forbid, happens to one of the prime minister’s children, people won’t accept the excuse that the security was called off.
The same though should apply to former prime ministers. Olmert, who was released from prison in July, as well as former prime minister Ehud Barak no longer have security or bodyguards. Not when they travel overseas, and not when they go for walks on the streets of Tel Aviv. Barak recently revealed that nowadays he carries a pistol.
An attack against a former prime minister, even years after he or she has left office, is no less an attack against the country than harm caused to a prime minister’s son or daughter. An attack against Barak or Olmert could have far-reaching consequences for Israel with strategic implications.
This reality is absurd. Imagine that Hezbollah, Hamas or ISIS manage to abduct or assassinate one of them during a trip overseas, or while they are on a random stroll in Jerusalem. What would we say then? We should have? We could have? By then, it will be too late.
Israel was supposed to have learned its lesson back in 2001, when Rehavam Ze’evi, the tourism minister, was gunned down in a Jerusalem hotel. Ministers are symbols of government, but today most of them have no security except for a guard booth outside their private residence.
It is time Israelis stop thinking about security and bodyguards as a perk or privilege, and more as an insurance policy for the country. It is in our interest that the people who need to be safe and secure are safe and secure.
We’ve seen what happens when a soldier gets abducted along the Gaza border (the Gilad Schalit prisoner swap for 1,500 terrorists), or when two IDF reservists are kidnapped along the border with Lebanon (the month-long Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006). There is no reason to wait for another attack so we can again learn another lesson.
It is worth considering what troubles Israelis so much about some people having security. What is it about the security guards that gets people riled up? It might be considered a privilege by some people, but for others it is mostly viewed as a burden – needing to coordinate your every move with guards, and not being able to simply go somewhere inconspicuously and without attention.
The problem with the Yair Netanyahu case is that while he might require security guards, they have no business going with him to places where he seems to like hanging out, based on the recording that came out this week. It reminds me of a former minister who used to drag his security guards with him to bars when he was traveling overseas. There were a number of cases when the guards needed to intervene when the minister got into drunken brawls.
That is not the job of state-funded bodyguards, and just because someone might need security doesn’t mean that everything is permitted. There should be limitations on where the guards go and what they do. They should, for example, have the authority to prevent a person they are protecting from going to places like strip bars and brothels.
THE BIGGER question at hand though is whether we have become desensitized to what our leaders or their families do. Have we simply given up, lowering our expectations and compromising our values in order to avoid disappointment?
As The Jerusalem Post’s political analyst Gil Hoffman wrote this week, the Yair recording is not going to hurt Netanyahu’s political standing. In a few days, he wrote, this whole affair will be forgotten.
He’s probably right. It seems that this is something Israel has in common these days with the United States. There, too, people have grown accustomed to the almost daily presidential Twitter rants, the personal attacks and the name calling. The storm caused by the book Fire and Fury that came out this week will blow over, as will any storm that erupts after the books currently in the works about Netanyahu come out later this year.
The fact that Netanyahu’s son likes to frequent strip joints shouldn’t necessarily impact the prime minister. People can argue whether it is a result of the values he got from home or not. I tend to believe that Netanyahu (the father) was ashamed of his son when he heard the way he spoke on the recording. When Netanyahu was in his 20s, he wasn’t running between bars and strip joints in Tel Aviv but was raiding hijacked airplanes and crossing enemy lines on covert General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) missions.
Another example of this new shallow political culture is what happened in the US at the Golden Globes this week. Oprah gave a great speech, and suddenly everyone is talking about her running for president in 2020. She might be qualified and might even make a great president one day, but the mere fact that everyone is clamoring around another TV celebrity says something about the political discourse in the United States today.
Nevertheless, we should not become complacent. We should not shy away from holding our elected officials to higher standards, to expect them to be role models for how we should aspire to be in our own lives. Desensitization should not be an option.