Benjamin Netanyahu scrambles to defend son after misogynistic comments and prostitution boast caught on tape

Like Donald Trump before him, Israeli PM resorts to attacking press in defence of child following release of audio recording capturing 26-year-old's indiscreet remarks in Tel Aviv strip club

Ishaan Tharoor
Wednesday 10 January 2018 15:24 GMT
Israeli TV airs audio of Benjamin Netanyahu's son bragging about gas deal

Late last year, President Donald Trump scrambled to defend Donald Trump Jr after news broke that his eldest son had taken an ill-advised 2016 meeting with a group of Kremlin-connected Russians - one now branded “treasonous” by ex-White House adviser Steven Bannon. This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a prominent Trump ally, found himself doing the same.

A recording aired on Tuesday by Channel 2, an Israeli broadcaster, featured the voice of Yair Netayahu during a drunken romp around Tel Aviv's strip clubs in 2015. The younger Netanyahu, now 26, is heard making disparaging comments about women and boasting to friends about soliciting prostitutes. He also solicits cash from one of his companions, the son of a prominent Israeli tycoon, arguing it was only fair given the $20 billion gas deal that “my father got you.”

The emergence of the tape is unwelcome news for the Israeli Prime Minister, who is surrounded by allegations of corruption and is at the centre of two criminal probes. With the public's attention already fixed on Netanyahu's various dodgy dealings, including alleged demands of free champagne and cigars from foreign business executives, his son's drunken remarks open a potential new avenue of investigation.

Meanwhile, the sordid nature of the conversation is inconvenient at a time when Netanyahu's government is also passing unpopular legislation to curb business on the Sabbath. “In the public eye since childhood, the younger Netanyahu has been part of the traditional wholesome tableau that the Prime Minister's family has presented to the public, with an emphasis on spending the Jewish Sabbath on family nature hikes, meals and Bible study with their father,” noted left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Spending Friday nights club-hopping and thousands of dollars carousing with strippers was not part of that carefully honed image, damaging Netanyahu's popularity with the religious supporters.”

In the face of a media maelstrom, both Netanyahu and his son issued conciliatory statements; Yair apologised for the “nonsense” spoken under the influence of alcohol. “My son was correct in saying yesterday that he had spoken foolish words,” said his father. “He said, it's not me, Yair. He said that these are not the values that characterise him. And he's right.”

But his eldest son, like Donald Trump Jr before him, in fact seemed more concerned with lashing out at the press, branding their fathers' critics as enemies of their respective nations. In their battles with liberal opponents, both sons have also courted the support of the neo-fascist alt-right on social media, with Netanyahu even posting what seemed to be an anti-Semitic meme celebrated by neo-Nazis on his Facebook page last year.

Their fathers, too, have echoed each other's illiberal agendas. In a year when much of the international community has held Trump at arm's length, Netanyahu went in for a full embrace. As Trump pushed the construction of a wall on the Mexican border, Netanyahu chimed in, insisting that the supposed success of an Israeli barrier along its border with Egypt proved the worth of Trump's project.

Netanyahu tweeted “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea”

As many traditional American allies in Europe are attempting to stare down proto-authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary, both Trump and Netanyahu have celebrated their nationalism and defiance of touchy liberals. As Trump scraps policies that protected hundreds of thousands immigrants fleeing violence and natural disaster, Netanyahu is moving ahead with plans to expel tens of thousands of African asylum seekers by force. (The United Nations released a statement this week pointing to dozens of instances in which asylum seekers deported by Israel subsequently endured abuse, detention and torture in their home countries.)

As ongoing legal investigations into their conduct roll on, both Trump and Netanyahu have taken turns launching attacks on the independent media and the judicial systems they see arrayed against them. The Israeli prime minister has copied Trump's complaints about “fake news.” And burdened by domestic troubles threatening their rule, Netanyahu and Trump worked together last month to outrage much of the rest of the world with the White House's decision to fully recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Numerous American Jewish supporters of Israel now lament the rightward shift that has taken place under Netanyahu's watch, which includes a recent move to ban activists from a number of organisations critical of the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“The Netanyahu administration has done more than ban critics with this latest move and all those that preceded it,” wrote David Rothkopf, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced and International Studies. It “has turned supporters into adversaries. It has taken one large step in the direction of the illiberal thugocracies favoured by the likes of Trump.”

For Netanyahu, a far more experienced and canny political operator than Trump, there may be a clear logic behind cosying up to the American President as enemies circle around him at home and abroad. But there are also clear dangers in aping Trump's tactics.

“Trump's attacks on the press, the judiciary and even America's culture of civility will do damage, but that can be undone by the leaders who will follow,” wrote Daniel Gordis of Jerusalem's Shalem College for Bloomberg View. “Israel's democracy, however, is not two-and-a-half centuries old; it is less than 70. What the US can weather, Israel may not be able to reverse. Ironically, an Israeli prime minister seeking to protect Israel by mimicking the American president may be doing more damage to his own country than even he comprehends.”

The Washington Post

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