'Bibi' Is In Hot Water Again

Frenzied supporters shouting "Bibi! Bibi!" crowd around and stab the air with V-for victory signs as Benjamin Netanyahu climbs into his car. Netanyahu, glistening with sweat, wearing his trademark wolfish grin, combatively assures his fans of victory.

No, don't hit the "refresh" button on your browser, this is not an outdated page somehow come back to haunt you.

Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu is back in Israel's headlines - and under police investigation on suspicion of bribery.

The latest allegations of scandal in high places came to light in the best tradition of investigative reporting - or in the worst tradition of Israeli muckraking, depending on your point of view. Yediot Aharanot, Israel's biggest-selling daily paper, published details of the newest scandal to surround the former prime minister, who was trounced in his re-election bid in May by Ehud Barak.

CBS News Correspondent Jesse Schulman

What started this scandal rolling was a bill for almost $100,000 submitted to the prime minister's office by a Jerusalem handyman named Avner Amedi. The bill was for miscellaneous services rendered while Netanyahu was in office, from floor polishing and furniture moving to clearing out a garden shed at the home of Netanyahu's mother.

What set off alarm bells was that this bill was for work Netanyahu had apparently ordered but not paid for over a period of at least three years and perhaps as much as six. By the contractor's undisputed account, he was at the Netanyahu's residence some 200 times.

It's a little odd by any standard to work so much over such a long time and not get paid. All the more so in this case, since Avner Amedi is a small-time operator whose wife runs a West Jerusalem flower shop, not a three-piece-suited construction mogul who can afford to drop $100,000 worth of work as a "contribution."

In Israel, like in the U.S., it's against the law for public officials to receive gifts. Gifts, large or small, can easily be construed as bribes. Even innocent-looking gifts can hide a trade in favors. (This journalist once tried to thank a high-ranking Israeli civil servant for a small personal favor by sending him a bottle of champagne. The civil servant wouldn't even let the deliveryman in the door, insisting politely but firmly the bottle be returned immediately to the store.)

So, did Netanyahu illegally receive a "gift" of $100,000 worth of work around the house going back years? Was it a part of an exchange, and if so, for what? Netanyahu says it was all work done in the line of his duties as prime minister - moving furniture from his private home to his official residence, for example.

The contractor, however, says otherwise - that the work included tasks at Netanyahu's private home, some of it ordered b Netanyahu's famously demanding wife Sarah. The prime minister's office got the bill in the days after Netanyahu's election defeat and refused to pay it, since there was no record of the work having been ordered through official channels.

Compared to other accusations leveled at Netanyahu in the past, this one looks like small potatoes. He survived an investigation into serious allegations of influence peddling during his first year in office. The police wanted to indict him, but Israel's attorney general overruled them, saying the evidence was not strong enough to justify bringing charges against a sitting prime minister.

Even if the amount of money involved is modest, the legal repercussions could be serious. Experts here say Israeli law on bribery is tough and uncompromising. Moreover, Netanyahu has apparently offered explanations that contradict details given by his former officials at the prime minister's office. In political scandals, it's often a cover-up that comes unraveled first.

Netanyahu and his wife were questioned in separate rooms by a special police investigations unit. Within a few hours of their questioning, Israeli TV reported they had contradicted each other. The fact that such information had apparently leaked from what should have been privileged testimony provided Netanyahu's political allies the ammunition they needed to launch a counterattack.

Sarah Netanyahu

Senior figures in Netanyahu's party, the Likud, loudly seized on the leaks as proof Netanyahu was the victim, yet again, of a media plot to destroy him with the aid of the police. Netanyahu's pose as victim of "The Establishment" was part of what won him power in 1996, but the electorate didn't buy it come the re-election campaign. Apart from his much-reduced band of loyal supporters, no one much seems to be buying it now.

Instead, the talk around bars, cafes and water coolers is a re-hash of stories about his wife's famously bad temper, and his own habits of minor-league nest-feathering. Israeli restaurateurs of this reporter's acquaintance claim Netanyahu was legendary in his day for showing up at restaurants, wining and dining with his friends, ending the meal with a big cigar, and when the bill came, just waving his hand saying "It'll be taken care of," and leaving.

Without the protection of high office, it will be interesting to see whether this time it's the bill that gets "taken care of" or Netanyahu himself.


©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

Comments