In a new twist to an already tumultuous political situation in Israel this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted Thursday in three separate cases on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
The attorney general’s decision marks the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has been charged with criminal wrongdoing, and casts a shadow over the long-serving PM’s legacy even as he struggles to remain in power.
“People of the Pod” speaks to Ronen Bergman, staff writer for The New York Times, national security senior correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth and author of “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” who joins co-host Manya Brachear Pashman via telephone from Tel Aviv, to break down the charges against Netanyahu and their implications for Israeli politics.
The weekly podcast, produced in partnership between the American Jewish Committee and The Times of Israel, analyzes global affairs through a Jewish lens.
Bergman describes for Brachear Pashman how in the first two cases, referred to as Case 1000 and Case 2000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels (roughly $200,000) from billionaire Arnon Milchan in return for favors, and of striking a deal with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of major daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, that would provide Netanyahu with favorable coverage.
“The most severe of all cases,” Bergman says, “Case 4000, is dealing with the relationship between Netanyahu… and the main media tycoon in Israel, Shaul Elovitch.”
“It is said that Netanyahu and his wife intervened repeatedly – hundreds and hundreds of times – not just in the way that Mr. Netanyahu and his wife were being covered by the main online news website of Mr. Elovitch, called Walla, and dictated much of what was published about them during the elections,” Bergman says. “But they also intervened, according to the indictment, in the way that the website, which was very popular in Israel, treated their opponents. And not just their opponents on the left, but also their political rivals from the right, where they asked to amplify significantly the criticisms published against these opponents.”
“In return, according to the indictment, Netanyahu basically completely enslaved the Communication Ministry to the requests of Mr. Elovitch, granting him legislation and other changes of regulations which benefited in billions of shekels going directly into the pocket of Mr. Elovitch. This is a very, very, serious charge,” Bergman says.
The charges, says Bergman, couldn’t come at a more critical time. Netanyahu currently heads an interim government while in political deadlock with opposition head Benny Gantz. Neither of the two have been able to cobble together a majority governing coalition, and Israel is on the brink of heading to an unheard of third election in a single year.
“We are now in a political crisis unprecedented in the history of the country, but also in a legal crisis,” Bergman says. “It is not clear whether Mr. Netanyahu can lead a party and potentially be the next prime minister in the third election when criminal indictments are hanging over his head.”
What’s more, says Bergman, Netanyahu is allowed to ask the Knesset committee for immunity from the charges. The committee would then discuss it and bring it to parliament for a vote.
“The problem,” Bergman says, “is that we do not have a coalition, so we don’t have a Knesset committee. So we are stuck in a situation that nobody dreamed could occur in the history of Israel.”
Next, “People of the Pod” presents a conversation recorded at a special live show earlier this week in Atlanta between co-host Seffi Kogen and Jodi Rudoren, the new editor in chief of The Forward and former Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, along with Nachman Shai, former member of the Israeli Knesset and Israel Defense Forces spokesman.
Rudoren speaks about the future of journalism in the digital age, and specifically of The Forward, which faces the additional challenge of addressing an already integrated, and often fragmented, American Jewish audience.
“As I got more and more focused on digital innovation and audience strategy, I was really concerned about… local news deserts and different community or interspace publications that had not figured out what was the thing that people most needed, how to speak to the audience of today, where everything is on the phone and everything is integrated,” Rudoren says.
“When The Forward took the painful decision to end its print entirely earlier in 2019, it struck me that while that was of course painful, it was also very bold, and really showed the deep commitment to innovation that I think is essential to journalism of tomorrow,” she says.
Rudoren says that in addition to a global journalistic crisis, there is a crisis in American Judaism.
“I’m deeply concerned about people’s inability to talk to each other and the polarization of debate and of the organized community,” Rudoren says.
She goes on to reference a recent New York Times op-ed by a Jewish sophomore at George Washington University. The student, a self-described “liberal Zionist,” spoke about being shunned by groups he identified with politically because of his support for Israel.
“A lot of my friends who have kids in college, kids in their 20s, are having trouble talking to their own families about – it starts with Israel but then I think it becomes about who we are as Jews,” Rudoren says. “I think the organized Jewish community has failed in this way, and maybe is worsening things — communities largely defining people out of the acceptable realms of debate, and really getting super polarized.”
Kogen then speaks with Shai, who, prior to the indictment announcement against Netanyahu, had some words of advice for opposition Blue and White party head Benny Gantz: namely, to make painful concessions and to form a government together with Netanyahu.
“I’m just taking that lesson from our political history,” Shai says. “In the parties I belonged to, all those who refused to join Netanyahu have disappeared.”