The weakening of Israeli democracy

Colleagues marvel at PM’s ‘luck’ in facing down graft claims. In fact, he and his allies are targeting key hierarchies, some of which are complicit in their own falling credibility

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a persimmon as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on February 25, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a persimmon as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on February 25, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri turned 59 earlier this month, and some of his colleagues joined him for a little birthday celebration in a Knesset meeting room on Monday. Sitting alongside his Likud coalition friend Israel Katz, and unaware that his remarks were close enough to the microphones to be picked up, Deri marveled over and over to Katz at the sheer astounding luck that, he said, seems to surround Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “How lucky is Bibi?! How lucky?! Tell me, how lucky?!” Deri exclaimed. Katz murmured his assent. “It’s really something,” continued Deri. “Unbelievable,” they both agreed.

Perhaps Deri was feeling a little jealous. He, after all, is an ex-con who hasn’t always been so “lucky” — having served 22 months in jail starting in 2000 for taking bribes. Still, it didn’t destroy his career. Fairly astoundingly, he’s back in the very same office — minister of the interior –whose power he abused to take those bribes in the first place. Still more astoundingly, he’s currently under investigation again, for a whole fresh slew of fraud-related allegations.

Transportation Minister Israel Katz (Likud, left) and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) joke about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s incredible luck, on February 26, 2018. (Screen capture: Knesset Channel)

If only, Deri may well have been thinking, he’d been blessed with some of Netanyahu’s apparent good fortune in wriggling away from his accusers.

Except that, in the case of Netanyahu and his defenders, it’s not only luck that’s in play.

In their efforts to outmaneuver Israel’s police and state prosecutors, to keep the Israeli electorate on their side and thus retain the leadership of Israel, the prime minister and his allies are working assiduously to smear and tarnish central hierarchies of our democracy. And, unfortunately, several key players in those hierarchies have made it easy for the critics — discrediting themselves in the way they’ve handled the Netanyahu allegations, and, in some cases, through their general performance.

Stable, effective democracy requires a government acting honestly in the interests of the electorate. It requires a police force willing and able to root out wrongdoing, including by those in power and those seeking to influence those in power. It necessitates an independent judiciary, capable of ruling on the alleged infractions — capable, that is, of administering justice. And it requires an independent media to determinedly hold leadership to account — “to serve the governed, not the governors,” as Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” (quoting justice Hugo Black) recently reminded cinema-goers. Right now, serious questions need to be asked about the degree to which these institutions are fulfilling their roles.

Media control

Countless words have been devoted to the prime minister’s various suspected infractions — all of which he firmly denies — yet the core of his alleged purpose has nonetheless been under-internalized. For more than a year, attention has primarily centered on the Netanyahus’ receipt of allegedly illicit gifts from businessmen friends — a focus that has left many supporters of the prime minister crying foul, arguing that the sums involved are piffling, and that the relentless attention by police, prosecutors and reporters smacks of partisan bias and even a foul attempt to defy the will of the electorate and oust its choice of leader.

That focus on the presents, the goodies, is misleading. What many of the allegations against Netanyahu point to is a systematic attempt to skew media coverage of the prime minister in his favor. And this is no piffling matter. If a leader can line up most or even many of the ostensibly competing media organizations that cover national events reliably on his side, he can subvert their role as independent watchdog, misdirect the reading and watching public, and advance a long way toward cementing his position as prime minister — his non-term-limited position as prime minister in Israel, it is worth stressing.

You can’t fool all the people all the time. But you can certainly influence a lot of the people a lot of the time if you can control much of what the people are reading and seeing.

Publisher and owner of Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper Arnon “Noni” Mozes arrives for questioning in the so-called ‘Case 2000’ police investigation at the Lahav 433 investigation unit, in Lod, January 17, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

In Israel’s supposedly robust, diverse and feisty media landscape, Netanyahu has for years benefited from the  cheerleading of the nation’s most-read daily newspaper — the Sheldon Adelson-backed, freely distributed Israel Hayom. It has been alleged, but not proven, that he often directly orchestrated its content. Whether he did so or not, the thrust of that daily’s coverage has worked emphatically to his advantage. For Israel Hayom, overall, Netanyahu could do little wrong.

By contrast, for Yedioth Ahronoth, Netanyahu could do little right. Since Yedioth is Israel’s biggest-selling daily, and its website, Ynet, is the country’s most-trafficked news site, that was a profound problem for the prime minister. Case 2000, for which the police have recommended he be indicted for fraud, breach of trust and bribery, alleges that he was negotiating a never-implemented deal with the publisher of Yedioth, Arnon Mozes, to change that editorial line — that is, to render Yedioth less hostile to him. In the cause of that deal, Netanyahu was allegedly prepared to hamstring Yedioth’s great rival, Israel Hayom, including by limiting its circulation, thus boosting Yedioth’s balance sheet.

You can’t fool all the people all the time. But you can certainly influence a lot of the people a lot of the time if you can control much of what the people are reading and seeing

As well as allegedly illustrating the prime minister’s effort to illegally marshal maximal media support, this case also sheds dismal light on media titan Mozes, allegedly ready to reorient his own newspaper’s editorial line, not out of principle or perceived public interest, but in order to improve its finances.

Further dismal light is shed on media behavior in Case 4000, in which, among other suspicions still being investigated, it is alleged — and several journalists have publicly confirmed — that coverage of the prime minister and his family was skewed in Netanyahu’s favor at the Walla news site, second only to Ynet as the nation’s most-read online news resource. Journalists, like anybody else, need to earn a living and don’t particularly want to lose their jobs. But journalism is supposed to be a skilled, and, yes, principled, profession. If, as seems to have been the case, it was an open secret for years at Walla that its very purpose — reporting and analysis of the news — was routinely subverted by its owners, why was there no insistent outcry from the reporters and columnists and editors within?

Netanyahu’s alleged efforts to dominate the media, including from his position as minister of communications, feature elsewhere in the various allegations against him as well — with suspicions of illicit dealings relating to all three main TV news providers: the dominant Channel 2/Hadashot news; the convolutedly owned Channel 10, in which various cronies and ex-cronies of the PM have had their hands; and the dismantled, semi-resuscitated Israel Broadcasting Authority/Kan.

Government and parliamentary misdealings

The exaggerated focus on cigars and champagne has also largely obscured the alleged corruption of governance at the heart of several of the cases swirling around the prime minister.

Case 3000 — in which Netanyahu has not been named as a suspect, and his two closest legal advisers have been — revolves around alleged corruption in the state’s purchase of German submarines, a scandal with implications, furthermore, for Israel’s national security.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former spokesman Nir Hefetz (foreground) and Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch attend a remand hearing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, February 26, 2018 Flash90)

Meanwhile, in Case 4000 — in which Netanyahu is set to be questioned in the coming days, has been cited in court as an alleged central figure, but has not been named as a suspect — Shaul Elovitch, the majority shareholder in communications giant Bezeq, is suspected of giving and receiving bribes and illicit favors worth up to a billion shekels ($287 million). Shlomo Filber, the director general of the Communications Ministry who has turned state’s witness in this case, has reportedly agreed to testify that he was explicitly instructed by Netanyahu to provide regulatory benefits to Bezeq in exchange for the Walla site’s positive coverage.

The Knesset has also been impacted and in some instances sullied — not least by its inexplicable annual affirmation of the so-called Milchan Law, which grants an income tax exemption and tax reporting exemption on income earned abroad to new immigrants and returning residents for a period of 10 years. In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of seeking to extend those provisions to 20 years, with potential huge financial benefits to his cigar-providing buddy Arnon Milchan.

In its current form, the law is bitterly opposed by Israel’s financial regulators, led by the head of the tax authority, who recognize the potential benefits for money launderers in that exemption on reporting income, and who know Israel’s global financial reputation is on the line. Yet year after year, the regulators’ efforts are stymied by MKs.

Targeting the cops

The police have been strategically undermined by the prime minister and his allies — including being castigated by Netanyahu directly as biased and lacking in objectivity in its investigation of him. Netanyahu’s new coalition chief, David Amsalem, charged this week that “the police have been engaged in an obsessive, even sick chase after the prime minister in order to bring him down.” (Amsalem’s predecessor David Bitan had to quit the job because he is defending himself against corruption allegations.) A Likud-led Knesset committee hauled in police chief Roni Alsheich last week in a transparent effort to discredit him.

Yoav Kisch (R), chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee with Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich at a meeting of the Interior Affairs Committee, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Alsheich emerged from that session with reputation intact, this is hardly the heyday of Israeli police performance.

Aside from the Netanyahu probe, which is of necessity a top priority, the force often seems under-resourced and outmaneuvered by highly sophisticated Israeli criminals, who have pounced on the opportunities for crime in this fast-moving tech era while the cops try to play catch-up. It has proved unable and/or disinclined to tackle blights such as the multi-billion-dollar binary options fraud (for which nobody has been indicted in Israel, in which the FBI is now taking an increasingly dominant role, and whose impact has also been felt in the Knesset). Even its Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit, the very team investigating Netanyahu, has contrived to self-discredit via the sexual harassment allegations against one former chief (Roni Rittman) and the bribery-related conviction of a second (Menashe Arviv).

Another key pillar of Israel’s democracy targeted by the prime minister and his allies, while itself contributing to its own diminished credibility in the eyes of the public.

Judicial integrity

Finally, we come to the judiciary — an institution Netanyahu has not attacked in his efforts to discredit his accusers, and one of the last relatively unsullied beacons of our democracy… until the past few days.

Ombudswoman of the Prosecution, retired Judge Hila Gerstel, attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice, Committee meeting in the Israeli parliament on January 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Now we have a cloud of concern over the Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, for failing to turn to the police when her friend and fellow judge Hila Gerstel gave her a reportedly vague account of an effort by top Netanyahu aide Nir Hefetz to bribe Gerstel in 2015. (The alleged deal was for Gerstel to be appointed attorney general — the legal officer who must decide on any investigations and indictments of the prime minister — in return for closing a case involving alleged financial abuse by Sara Netanyahu.)

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on January 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hayut, in a statement last week, said Gerstel only told her about the incident after it had become irrelevant — when Avichai Mandelblit had already been appointed as attorney general — and gave her only “limited details,” and that she therefore “had no basis” for taking the matter any further. Surely, that was for the police to determine.

More recently still, we have the matter of alleged collusion between Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz and Israel Securities Authority investigator Eran Shacham-Shavit, purportedly coordinating against the defendants in Case 4000 as documented in an exchange of WhatsApp messages on Sunday.

Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz (L) and the Israel Securities Authority’s legal adviser, Eran Shacham-Shavit (R)

Now that the full content of their texts has been published, it emerges that their exchanges were not prejudicial to the defendants, but neither were they anything less than inappropriate. Defendants at a court hearing have the reasonable right to assume that the judge has not been discussing their case with prosecutors outside of the courtroom.

It’s no wonder that concern over the duo’s WhatsApp legal flirtation has obscured the gravity of the case itself in recent days. And no wonder that this was the incident that found Aryeh Deri marveling at the prime minister’s luck.

The government we deserve?

Israel has always rightly touted its unique place as the Middle East’s only democracy.

We’ve agonized about how to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians in the context of that democracy. If we didn’t care about it, we’d simply annex all the disputed territories, where the Biblical history of the Jewish nation played out, give ourselves a great big Land of Israel, and restrict the Palestinians in our expanded sovereign land to something less than equality. Likewise, we’ve rightly prided ourselves on our treatment of non-Jewish Israeli citizens in the context of that democracy — ensuring equal voting rights, press freedoms and religious freedoms for the minority.

Far from exulting in the unique Middle East’s “only democracy” title, we’ve hoped to see other regimes in this part of the world follow Israel’s lead. Our wariness over the so-called Arab Spring stemmed from the concern that the popular unrest would be exploited by Islamic extremists rather than true democrats, as had been the tragic experience in Iran in the late 1970s. We were anything but happy to be vindicated. We want to be joined by other democracies.

What we cannot afford is for ours to be destroyed from within. The nature of the suspicions against the prime minister and his alleged efforts to cement himself in power, the intervention in and (partly self-)compromising of our media, the sullying of our legislature, the efforts to weaken our already overstretched and troubled police force, and the discrediting of our judiciary, including by its own hand — these all suggest that the weakening process is well underway.

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