Corruption Eruption and the Future of Democracy in Israel

Corruption Eruption and the Future of Democracy in Israel

"You have hurt the image of public service and public faith in it. You acted in a conflict of interests, you abused your authority while taking into account other considerations that relate to your personal interests and the interests of your family. You corrupted public servants working under you." These statements encapsulate the allegations in the severe draft of charge – or charge pending hearing – the Israeli attorney general sent Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu on February 27, 2019.

Detail from Corrupt Legislation. A girl standing in the ruins of a brick wall shows an empty spindle and distaff to a throned personification of corrupt legislation, which holds a one-sided balance by gripping the balance beam. To the other side, an elderly figure reading from a book labelled "law" places a (money?) bag on the balance's one pan. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Main figure is seated atop a pedestal saying "CORRUPT LEGISLATION". Artist's signature is dated 1896. — Image Credits

"You have hurt the image of public service and public faith in it. You acted in a conflict of interests, you abused your authority while taking into account other considerations that relate to your personal interests and the interests of your family. You corrupted public servants working under you." These statements encapsulate the allegations in the severe draft of charge – or charge pending hearing – the Israeli attorney general sent Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu on February 27, 2019.

The attorney general announced he intended to indict Netanyahu pending a hearing, for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In what is referred to as Case 1000, Netanyahu is alleged to have accepted gifts from tycoons (Arnon Milchan and James Packer) in return for favors, which put him in conflict of interests and breach of trust. In Case 2000, the charge centers around negotiations between the Prime Minister and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes – favorable coverage in return for damaging a competing newspaper, which is subordinated to Netanyahu's interests ('Israel Hayom', owned by the mogul Sheldon Adelson). In Case 4000 (the bribery charge), Netanyahu is accused that he provided regulatory concessions to Shaul Elovitch, a telecommunication giant’s (‘Bezeq’) controlling shareholder, in exchange for favorable media coverage from Bezeq’s news website ‘Walla’. In Netanyahu's 2000 case and 4000 case, the objective was not cash, jobs or gifts, but rather favorable press coverage for himself and his wife, combined with hostile coverage of rival politicians.

 In the meantime, there are no clear indications that Netanyahu lost popularity, although he could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum 3-year term for fraud and breach of trust, depending on the outcome of the required hearing. The hearing is scheduled to take place some three months after the elections, which will be held on April 9, 2019. 

Netanyahu admitted that he got gifts, and he did not and could not deny the mere discussions with Mozes (that were recorded) or his relations with Elovitch and his directions to Walla. Yet, he has denied any wrongdoing. He argues that it is permissible to accept gifts from friends and he categorically denies that there was a quid-pro-quo relationship between himself and Milchan. He also claims that the investigations against him were discriminatory, and he argues that his negotiations with Mozes were merely toying with each other and neither had any intention of keeping his promises to the other. Moreover, he denies any connection between his actions regarding Bezeq and the coverage on Walla, and argues that the regulatory decisions were reasonable and approved by professional officials. Finally, he made the accusation that the corruption allegations brought forward against him constitute a “witch hunt” intended to remove him from power.

As often with Netanyahu, his deception is a combination of what he says and what he does not. It is true that the corruption allegations against him might determine his political career, and affect his camp's development in the future. However, that has always been the case with the struggle against corruption in Israel, and it is not necessarily against him personally. More precisely, the legal system in its struggle against corruption for more than four decades has been regulating and adjusting not only the public norms in Israel but also the political system. That is, by adopting a strong and active attitude against conflict of interests and misuse of public power, the legal enforcement system on the one hand did not allow newcomers - in the 1980 the prominent example was the Sephardim's parties (TAMI and later SHAS) and Arye Deri in particular - to pave their way with corrupt methods to the political center, and on the other hand allowed the system to get rid of oligarchs and senior politicians which were corrupted by their power.

The engagement of the legal enforcement system in the struggle against corruption started in the years 1974-1977, when the police and prosecution investigated senior figures, among then a minister (Avraham Offer) and the then Prime-Minister, Itzhak Rabin, and even prosecuted and convicted prominent public officials, most prominent Asher Yadlin, who was appointed head of the Israeli Central Bank. By doing so, the legal system contributed to the collapse of the old regime headed by Mapai, which was corrupted during those years. During the 1980s, when new social forces entered the political system, using questionable practices to build their power, the legal system turned against them. One of the dramatic cases was Deri's affair, the then new Mizrahi orthodox political superstar who was charged and convicted in a bribery case. By doing so, the legal system tempered the political competition and regulated the renovation of the system. More generally, the legal system had disabled new social forces using questionable practices to gain power from entering the political system over the years. On the other hand, the legal system actually enabled the political system to renew itself, and thus it contributed to the democratization of Israel. Importantly, though, the public was not active in the struggle against corruption, and it seems to be much less critical of corruption in politics. It tolerated corruption either because security issues were perceived as more important, or because the corruption was beneficial for certain segments, and thus a partisan issue or because the kind of abuse of power that was revealed was nuanced and complicated, and its wrongfulness and harmfulness is not beyond dispute.

Back to the present, we see that the legal system fights a political force – Benjamin Netanyahu - that the power seems to have corrupted him, as happened with Mapai and with former Prime Minister Olmert. As we saw, that has always been the case in Israel. What is new, is that unless the public gets more involved in the struggle, and votes against Netanyahu's regime come April 9th, Netanyahu might tear Israel's democracy to pieces, for he has already sparked a war on the legitimacy of core institutions such as the police, the media as well as the prosecution itself.

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