Communication breakdown
Hebrew media review

Communication breakdown

A prime minister who sought to influence the media finds his crusade coming back to bite him in the latest corruption scandal

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the Muni World conference in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the Muni World conference in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

The Hebrew-language papers all deal with the bombshell developments in the Netanyahu graft probes, arguing that this time the prime minister will have a much harder time brushing off the suspicions.

For the past year, give or take, the Hebrew language media has covered and dissected the various corruption allegations involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates, with analysts predicting that this or that particular case will be the final nail in the Israeli leader’s political coffin. Yet Netanyahu has so far managed to forge through each scandal, depicting the cases as an ongoing witch hunt against him — an effort which has enjoyed phenomenal success among many Likud party loyalists and others on the right.

But the tumult of the past couple of days, which included a suspended director general of the Communications Ministry who is a longtime confidant of Netanyahu turning state’s witness in the Bezeq corruption investigation, as well as Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut being summoned by police as a witness in an alleged 2015 bribe offer to a fellow judge by an adviser to the prime minister, has changed the tone of coverage, and many commentators in the Hebrew-language papers seem much more confident about their predictions of the Israeli leader’s possible undoing.

Yedioth Ahronoth, no fan of Netanyahu, labels Shlomo Filber’s testimony an “earthquake,” and has no problem explicitly accusing Netanyahu of having a “system” aimed at providing regulatory benefits to Bezeq in exchange for Bezeq’s chief shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, giving Netanyahu and his family positive coverage on the Walla news site, which Elovitch also owns. Filber, according to the daily, claimed that Netanyahu ordered him to show favoritism to telephone company Bezeq, and that his tenure at the ministry left him feeling like a pawn. The paper goes as far as offering a full page “guide” to the various Netanyahu-related cases, and, perhaps a bit too willingly, plasters a shiny yellow stamp graphic above several photos of Netanyahu, detailing exactly what crimes the prime minister is suspected of in each one of the investigations.

Even Israel Hayom, a media outlet typically very sympathetic to the prime minister, leads with a not-so-pro-Netanyahu quote by Filber. While contributor Haim Shine, a Netanyahu enthusiast, offers an almost formulaic defense of the prime minister, the right wing daily also features an op-ed by former Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin, who minces no words in his criticism of the Israeli leader. Beilin notes that Netanyahu has already shown an overt and curious interest in influencing the media, and that for this reason, his alleged intervention in Bezeq’s affairs may not be so surprising.

“Two very strange things happened during the establishment of the current government,” Beilin writes. “The one — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on holding the Communications Ministry portfolio, and second — a clause [in the coalition agreement] demanding sole control over media issues [for Likud].” Beilin argues that ironically, Netanyahu’s strong focus on the media may ultimately lead to his downfall. “The man who wanted the media so much is now facing a public relations catastrophe of proportions he had never seen before.”

Haaretz places a lot of emphasis on criticizing Chief Justice Esther Hayut’s defense of her decision not to report to police the alleged 2015 bribe offer to judge Hila Gerstel. Hayut explained she had found Gerstel’s story “vague,” and no information on those involved was disclosed to her. Columnist Uri Misgav argues Hayut will have a tough time retaining her position with the cloud of such a problematic incident hanging over the head of the judiciary. If Gerstel’s story is true, Misgav writes, “it would essentially mean that there had been an attempt to totally upend the role of the courts in Israel. Hayut claimed that the details surrounding Gerstel’s claims were foggy, but that is exactly the job of the police – to demystify the fog,” Misgav charges.

Meanwhile, the left-wing daily’s Revital Hovel argues that while the law does not require that Hayut report the alleged bribe offering, the norm stated in the State Service Regulations is very clear. “When a case comes up in which a manager receives information about ‘a suspicion that an employee in the office has committed a criminal offense having to do with — or even not having to with — carrying out their duties… [the manager] must notify the police,” Hovel quotes out of the regulation handbook. Hovel says Hayut’s handling of the case may leave many wondering why, “[i]f it is expected of an ordinary civilian to report unlawful incidents, [is it not expected] all the more so in the case of a Supreme Court justice?”

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