With John Paul II’s departure, Israel’s attention turned this week to Bibi, Yossi and Yosef. Following the historic Holy Land pilgrimage of the Pope, which dominated the country’s headlines for a week, two political scandals took center stage — pending corruption charges against former Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, and a possible investigation of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for an “incitement” attack on Education Minister Yossi Sarid.
Police recommended that Netanyahu, who lost the Israeli leadership in May 1999 elections, be indicted for accepting bribes, misusing state funds and illegally keeping 700 state gifts worth $110,000.
He and his wife Sara are suspected of accepting the moving and cleaning services of contractor Avner Amedi for three years without pay; now a prosecution witness, he was allegedly to receive a government contract. The couple is also suspected of keeping dozens of gifts received during the prime minister’s 1996-99 tenure, in violation of Israeli law.
It is up to the state attorney whether to put the Netanyahus on trial.
Netanyahu called the charges baseless and accused police of acting in bad faith. “This was a tendentious investigation whose outcome was known ahead of time,” he said.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein announced an inquiry into comments that Rabbi Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, the Sephardic religious party, made against Sarid, head of the leftist Meretz party. Shas and Meretz are partners in Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s shaky government coalition.
In a radio broadcast Rabbi Yosef compared Sarid, who he said is determined to eliminate Torah education in Israel, to Haman and Amalek, two biblical enemies of the Jewish people, and called on God to blot out Sarid’s memory.
The rabbi later insisted he meant Sarid no harm, telling thousands of supporters who rallied near his home in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood to shun violence.
“Certainly it’s depressing that there should be an epidemic of scandals in Israel,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “The charges themselves have already caused enormous damage to the image Israel enjoys in this country.”
Baum said the current rhetoric is reminiscent of the Israeli political climate five ago. “One had thought they had moved away from the intemperate language after the deplorable effect they had before the assassination of [Prime Minister Yitzchak] Rabin” in 1995.
After Sofa Landver of the centrist One Israel party compared Rabbi Yosef to a Mafia boss, and Health Minister Shlomo Benizri of Shas called her the Hebrew equivalent of a “despicable b——,” Prime Minister Ehud Barak called for an end to the current war of words.
Rubinstein said the criminal investigation will determine if Rabbi Yosef, a leading figure in Israel’s Sephardic community, violated the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, which bans pronouncements that encourage violence, and Paragraph 288 of the Penal Law, which prohibits insulting public servants.
Rubinstein said he faced pressure not to order the probe from cabinet ministers, Knesset members and rabbis, who warned him “the country will burn.”
Benizri called the attorney general’s announcement “racist … because we’re Sephardim and because we’re haredim,” and the chairman of the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism faction issued a statement of support for Rabbi Yosef.
Barak said he will “do everything possible” to keep his coalition together, and Shas’ Council of Torah Sages ordered the party’s Knesset faction to stay in the government “for the time being.”
After Shas supporters this week set fire to an abandoned car and garbage bins in Jerusalem, police beefed up security patrols around Rubinstein’s home, and extra forces were sent from Tel Aviv in preparation for possible confrontations with Shas supporters.
Shas plans to hold a major rally in support of Rabbi Yosef around Passover.