A wayward judge may be the biggest blow to public trust in Netanyahu probe
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Analysis

A wayward judge may be the biggest blow to public trust in Netanyahu probe

Bombshell report of outrageous correspondence between judge and investigator could do more damage to the rule of law than years of attacks by politicians

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Outgoing Supreme Court President, Miriam Naor (C-R), and incoming President Esther Hayut (C-L) at the Supreme Court during Naor's last ruling and retirement ceremony, in Jerusalem, on October 26, 2017.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Outgoing Supreme Court President, Miriam Naor (C-R), and incoming President Esther Hayut (C-L) at the Supreme Court during Naor's last ruling and retirement ceremony, in Jerusalem, on October 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Battling lengthy investigations into alleged corruption, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended himself against allegations of graft by lashing out at some of the most respected institutions of Israeli democracy.

He has accused “shady left-wing forces” of masterminding a deep-state conspiracy against him. His allies have slammed demonstrators protesting corruption as “anti-Israel operatives.” He has labeled negative reporting of him as “fake news” and said that the media is engaged in “an obsessive witch hunt against me and my family with the goal of achieving a coup against the government.”

In recent months, as police closed in on recommendations to indict him, the prime minister cast aspersions on the integrity of Commissioner Roni Alsheich. He said police were doing all they could to bring him down. And when the recommendations did come, with police saying he should be charged with fraud, breach of trust and bribery in two case, he accused the force of “slander and lies.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a rally with his supporters, in Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2017. (Flash90)

But it was Tuesday’s revelation of possible collusion by a judge and an Israel Securities Authority (ISA) public prosecutor in one of the corruption investigations, the so-called Case 4000, that risks doing far more damage than any aspersions cast by Netanyahu to the public trust in that most fundamental of Israel’s democratic gatekeepers: the judiciary.

Case 4000 involves suspicions that the chairman and controlling shareholder of the telecommunications giant Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch, ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant positive coverage to Netanyahu and his family, in exchange for the prime minister allegedly advancing regulations benefiting Bezeq and Elovitch.

Netanyahu is not currently a suspect in the case, but a number of his close aides are, and police are reportedly considering making him one in the coming days.

The correspondence exposed by Channel 10, in which Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz and Eran Shacham-Shavit, the deputy council of the ISA’s investigative department, discussed and coordinated remand periods for some of the suspects in text messages prior to the hearings, will likely end the careers of both. Far more significantly, it could damage the current police investigation into Case 4000 and even throw off balance other corruption probes against Netanyahu.

Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz. (Judiciary of Israel)

Furious responses from across the political spectrum called for Poznansky-Katz’s immediate dismissal, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut summoned the judge to a hearing Monday in which many observers believe Poznansky-Katz will be shown the door. The ISA has also vowed to investigate Shacham-Shavit, saying in a statement, “On the face of it, this is an aberrant and improper incident.”

The bombshell report will almost certainly lead to a rehearing of the remand arguments Poznansky-Katz had ruled on — something Elovitch’s attorneys have already demanded — which could result in the custody extensions of six suspects in Case 4000 being overturned. That, in turn, may have consequences for the case against Netanyahu; as things stood Sunday night, police were scheduled to question him in the case on Friday.

The consequences could even go beyond Case 4000 and may impact the other cases (police case designations 1000, 2000, 3000 and 1270) that directly or indirectly involve the prime minister.

But the most serious fallout might not be the undermining of the corruption probes. There are potentially grave and deeply worrying implications for how the public views Israel’s law enforcement and judicial authorities.

Netanyahu and many of his political allies have spent the past few years, and especially recent months, railing against the media, the police and the judiciary, describing all these vast and varied institutions as a unified left-wing elite bent on imposing their social and political programs on the country.

Responding to Netanyahu’s fierce criticism, Commissioner Alsheich last week admonished those who “damage public trust” in the police, and painted a bleak picture of how such a loss of public confidence in law enforcement could deal real damage to Israeli democracy and rule of law.

“The police needs the trust of the public, and not only for public relations,” Alsheich told a conference last week. “When the public trust is damaged, fewer crimes are reported to the police, the public receives poorer service and the crime rate, including street crime and violence, increases.”

The politicians’ strategy of sowing distrust has been contained, at least in part, by the careful conduct of these institutions. But Judge Poznansky-Katz’s untenable coordination of rulings with one side in a case, complete with a mocking promise to “feign surprise” in the courtroom, could play into the campaign calling the integrity of the judiciary into question.

Police chief Roni Alsheich and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Alsheich said that “criminals have always had an interest in damaging the public’s trust [in law enforcement] by promoting and maintaining a negative image” of these institutions.

Polls taken in the two weeks since police recommended indicting Netanyahu for bribery in two of the investigations show that despite the serious allegations of corruption against the prime minister, his base still supports him. If elections were held today, the polls predicted, his Likud party would still win a plurality of Knesset seats and he would still likely remain prime minister.

The reactions in recent weeks from Netanyahu supporters on news site talkbacks, in Likud WhatsApp groups, on Facebook and on the street have revealed that the various attacks on the accusers by Netanyahu and his allies may be working, at least within his core group of supporters. Large numbers of Israelis seem more willing to accept the notion of a conspiracy against the prime minister than that police have uncovered real misdeeds on his part.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Likud supporters at a rally designed to deliver a powerful show of force as he battles a slew of corruption allegations, August 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Most initial Likud reactions to the Poznansky-Katz collusion bombshell have appeared to internalize some appreciation of the potential danger in using this incident as an opportunity to attack the judiciary as a whole. Netanyahu himself remained silent on Sunday. But, buoyed by the prime minister’s years-long onslaught against the police and the media, some have taken the baton and are already using it to sow doubt in the justice system.

Coalition Chairman MK David Amsalem, for example, accused the courts of a double standard, saying he had “no doubt” that had such illicit cooperation been uncovered by suspects linked to Netanyahu, “they wouldn’t ever be released.” Fellow Likud MK Nurit Koren said the report proved that there were serious problems with, as she called it, “the injustice system.”

Netanyahu may not actually need to make the case himself in order to mobilize public outrage against the courts. His previous attacks may have laid the groundwork, while some of his allies are eager to take advantage. But in the end, it is the actions of the wayward judge, not of the investigation-prone politician, that will likely do the most damage.

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