Enough with the cheap gags: 6 things to know for November 7
Israel media review

Enough with the cheap gags: 6 things to know for November 7

Amir Ohana’s breaking of a gag order covering up allegations of misconduct draws anger, though whether it’s directed at the minister or police depends on the media’s own prejudices

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, on October 3, 2019. Next to him is Justice Minister Amir Ohana with one of his children. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, on October 3, 2019. Next to him is Justice Minister Amir Ohana with one of his children. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

1. Gag me: Justice Minister Amir Ohana decided Wednesday to throw the lid off some serious allegations about police conduct in the interrogations of former aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Nir Hefetz, but all he actually did is open a can of worms for the press, politicians, prosecution and everyone in between.

  • Standing before the Knesset, Ohana described how investigators called in for questioning a young woman who was not directly connected to Case 4000, asked her “invasive and intrusive” questions about her relationship with Hefetz, and then threatened to tell his family everything, leading him to sign a deal to become state’s witness.
  • In the immediate aftermath of Ohana’s comments it was not clear whether that meant they could be repeated, or whether it could just be reported that he had broken the gag order.
  • While some outfits initially refrained from reporting on what he said, and the Ynet news site even put up a video with his words bleeped out, eventually the press as a whole realized that his comments were fair game.
  • As noted by my colleagues, “Israel’s Basic Laws stipulate that all Knesset plenum debates must be open to the public and their content permitted for publication.” The Knesset spokesperson even sent out an email to the press with a transcript of Ohana’s comments.
  • Nonetheless, Yedioth notes that in 2013, after lawmakers used their immunity to break open the story on Prisoner X Ben Zygier, the Knesset’s legal counsel wrote an opinion that immunity doesn’t cover MKs if they break the gag in a premeditated fashion.
  • Nonetheless, the floodgates were opened, with even Netanyahu’s son Yair tweeting out what Ohana said and then some.
  • Even just reporting that Ohana broke a gag order, without detailing his allegations, itself is technically illegal, with a gag order having previously been placed on the fact that there was a gag order — one of the many ridiculous things that journalists in Israel routinely have to put up with. Though Ohana did not mention the gag order, meaning it should technically still be unreportable, that appears to have gone out the window completely, with the press reporting on the existence of the gag order with no qualms and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sending out a statement that mentions Ohana breaking a gag order.

2. Gag doll: Somewhat strangely, given the fact that the allegations against police would help Netanyahu in the most serious of his criminal cases, papers that lean left or are not fans of the premier appear more loath to report on what Ohana said.

  • Both Haaretz and Yedioth aim their opprobrium at Ohana and not at clamps on free speech or allegedly illegal police tactics, providing a window into how super politicized the press is here and how dogmatism trumps intellectual honesty.
  • Haaretz’s top headline mentions only that Ohana let his loose lips fly and that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit accused him of misleading the public.
  • Two separate front page op-eds in the broadsheet accuse Ohana of flouting the law as Netanyahu’s toady.
  • In one, Yossi Verter claims that Ohana’s words were a form of witness intimidation meant to get around the pesky gag order, possibly in coordination with Netanyahu or his son Yair.
  • “Ohana, who was pulled from the Knesset back benches and plunked down in the bureau of the justice minister, continues to repay his patrons, Yair Netanyahu and his father, in spades. To the best of his (weak) rhetorical ability and with his (negligible) heft, he continues to nip at the heels of the law enforcement branches of government, of the country’s laws which he swore to uphold as a minister, and of basic norms expected of elected officials, never mind the norms expected of a minister of justice,” he writes.
  • Yedioth’s headline, “Deriding the gag,” also leaves no doubt about where it stands, focusing the lion’s share of its news story on criticism of Ohana.
  • The story quotes from Hefetz’s lawyer, who accuses Ohana of “damaging personal privacy.”
  • “Those who supposedly care about an unsullied investigation are doing a much larger injustice to those they are supposedly defending, by revealing private information,” the paper’s columnist Sima Kadmon writes, apparently forgetting that the police allegedly did the same by dragging the woman into the story. “And they do it for one goal, to continue to defend Netanyahu, to make the public suspicious of the police, the prosecution and the attorney general, and all to delegitimize the AG’s decision [on an indictment.]”

3. Salute your lawbreakers: It’s a two-way street, with right-wing publications that normally have no problem with questionable police methods against suspects who don’t possibly have dirt on the prime minister suddenly up in arms over this and the alleged search of a phone of another Netanyahu aide.

  • Netanyahu-backing Israel Hayom pays little heed to Ohana flouting the law, and runs a large headline on its front page reading “the prosecution and police are not above the law.”
  • “We should salute Ohana for telling the truth about a problematic body like the prosecution. Every citizen is shocked when they hear about the threats on Hefetz,” Amnon Lord writes in an accompanying column.
  • Not everyone on the right is running to high-five Ohana though. Former right wing justice minister Daniel Friedman calls for deep reforms in the role of the attorney general, who he claims has no checks. But he does not have much of a ringing endorsement of the prime minister’s behavior.
  • “As long as Netanyahu could benefit from the situation, it was great, and nobody was allowed to touch the prosecution. Now that it’s reached him, suddenly there’s this huge uproar,” he tells Army Radio.
  • Makor Rishon editor Haggai Segal, whose son Amit Segal started the whole hubbub by reporting what he could on the alleged pressure on Hefetz, tweets, “No matter what you think about Case 4000, a justice minister can’t just disdain a court order.”
  • The comment is retweeted by the younger Segal, and closely echoes a statement by the prime minister, in which he attempts to make himself seem above the case.

4. Alleged collusion between politicians and the press? Don’t act so shocked. Leaked conversations between Hefetz and Walla editor Ilan Yeshua published by Channel 13 show the PM’s aide directing the news site’s coverage.

  • According to the report, Yeshua consulted with Hefetz about how to cover transcripts relating to Sara Netanyahu’s criminal cases.
  • “We didn’t publish anything on the transcripts. What do you prefer? That we not publish anything? Or that we publish the transcripts with the denial displayed prominently?” writes Yeshua, according to the report.
  • The transcripts get wide play, with most news organizations just republishing them in full and with very little commentary.

5. Bad boys: Unsurprisingly, Walla doesn’t have much to say about the report, but it does note that Hefetz is not the first whom police interrogators have used extraordinary efforts on.

  • Reporter Daniel Dolev goes through a number of cases in which parents or siblings of suspects are arrested in order to pressure them to admit to crimes.
  • In one case, in 2000, a man suspected of embezzling money from the Jerusalem municipality claimed that his testimony was coerced after police threatened to tell his partner about an affair he was having, and to tell his partner’s sick father as well, who he was told may hear the news and get more ill.
  • He notes that Judge Noam Solberg, now a Supreme Court justice, ruled that police were in their rights to do so “and he added that the cop didn’t threaten the suspect, just ‘explained the significance of what is happening.”
  • There is also the quickly forgotten case of a terror commander in the West Bank arrested last month who suddenly during his interrogation had to go to the hospital in critical condition.
  • That case was also initially gagged, and didn’t look good, but Channel 12 news reports that Samer Erbid has now recovered and is expected to be released from the hospital, and back into the Shin Bet’s hands.

6. Missing Torah, missing water: For something completely different, the Forward has a barn-burner of a Berditchev mystery about a mysterious Torah scroll that wound up at a Goodwill shop in Virginia, on sale for a few hundred bucks.

  • Sleuth reporter Ari Feldman tries to track down where it came from, but ultimately comes up short. Perhaps you can crack the case?
  • In ToI, Sue Surkes takes a look at the mystery of what ever happened to the joint Israeli-Jordanian plan to save the Dead Sea, and it looks like chances are lower than the sea itself.
  • “The only project agreed on by Israel and Jordan that could possibly, in the foreseeable future, help save the Dead Sea from further shrinkage is stuck in a byzantine web of politics, bilateral tensions and Israeli foot-dragging,” she writes depressingly.
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