Israel Pulse

Netanyahu’s Israel is state in crisis

Article Summary
If there is any substance to the Israeli police's recommendations to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu for bribery, the State of Israel is more a model of government corruption than a "light unto nations."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loves Hanukkah. The annual ritual of lighting the Hanukkah candelabra organized by his party provides him with a stage from which to project his brightness unto the people of Israel and the world. At the same time, he uses the platform to cast into shadow all those who wish ill on the State of Israel and the Netanyahu family — which the prime minister views as one and the same. This year, the Festival of Lights provided an ideal opportunity to save residents of northern Israel from the tunnels dug by Hezbollah from Lebanon into Israel, which residents have reported for years and largely been ignored. On Dec. 4, the IDF launched operation Northern Shield to uncover and neutralize these tunnels. Those claiming the timing of the operation, which has been in the planning for months, was linked to the Dec. 2 police recommendations to indict Netanyahu on suspicion of bribery and other crimes, do so at their own risk.

For Hanukkah 2012, Netanyahu posted a photo to Facebook of Israel taken from a satellite, writing in Hebrew, “The State of Israel is a light unto nations. One can see this from outer space, too.” Earlier that year, in February, Netanyahu took the opportunity of the appointment ceremony for Judge Asher Grunis as president of the Supreme Court to boast about Israel’s “exemplary legal system that serves as a light unto nations.” And not only a light unto nations, Netanyahu waxed poetically, “a bright light.”

On a Hanukkah 2017 conference call with Israeli embassies around the world, Netanyahu bragged, “Many countries understand that we are spreading light unto the nations — in our search and rescue missions and in health, agriculture, water and all the important fields.”

And what about the fields of corruption and law enforcement? Does the prime minister not regard them as important, or does he have trouble portraying Israel as a “bright light” in these areas?

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As the devil or the police commissioner would have it (Netanyahu sees them as one and the same), this Hanukkah the police have turned Netanyahu’s festival of light unto nations into a festival of dark recommendations. On Dec. 2, the police announced that with the completion of the investigation known as Case 4000, it was recommending Netanyahu’s indictment on suspicion of taking a bribe, fraud and breach of trust and fraudulently accepting benefits under egregious circumstances. Netanyahu is suspected of making regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the country’s largest telecommunications firm Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage for Netanyahu and his wife by Elovitch’s Walla! news site.

In February, police announced it had sufficient grounds to suspect that the prime minister engaged in a “relationship of bribery” with the publisher of the Yediot Ahronoth news group, Arnon Mozes. Police have also recommended indicting Netanyahu on bribery charges, fraud and breach of trust stemming from his relationship with Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, and on charges of fraud and breach of trust resulting from his relationship with Australian businessman James Packer. The announcements noted that the offices of the state attorney and the attorney general had closely monitored the investigations.

If there is any substance at all to the recommendations, then the State of Israel is indeed a model unto nations — of government corruption and the undermining of the pillars of democracy. However, even if Netanyahu’s reactions to the recommendations were close to the truth (he categorically denied the allegations), Israeli society is in trouble.

In December 2015, at the ceremony appointing Roni Alsheikh to head the Israeli police, Netanyahu described the organization as “a foundation stone of our national defense wall," saying, "There is no government without police, without police that enforces law and order. An efficient, determined, professional and dedicated police.” Heaping praise on Alsheikh, Netanyahu added, “I am confident you will guide the police toward a successful future while serving as a personal example of responsible command.”

A lot has changed since. In reaction to the recommendation to indict him in Case 4000, Netanyahu said that the investigation process was poisoned from the start. According to Netanyahu, rather than law enforcement, Israel now has a police force conducting a tainted process that levels “crazy claims” against the prime minister, a police force most of whose recommendations are binned, a body that has lost public trust and “senior figures who bend judges.” Alasheikh, who Netanyahu himself appointed and was convinced would guide the police to a successful future, ended his three-year term this week. Netanyahu’s parting words to him were that his successor would have his work cut out for him to rehabilitate the police force.

The best-case scenario is still troubling. If it turns out that Netanyahu did not accept bribes, did not buy media coverage and did not take gifts from business people, the prime minister — by his own admission — fell asleep at the helm while the state drifted and foundered. He failed to notice that the guardians he had named to protect the rule of law were undermining him. And if he turns out to be right in saying that all those who have turned state’s witness — his aide Ari Harow, his confidant Nir Hefetz and his yes man Shlomo Filber — conspired against him, that means the prime minister had surrounded himself with a gang of corrupt officials. Don't forget that Netanyahu’s personal lawyer David Shimron and his candidate for national security adviser, Avriel Bar-Yosef, are both suspects in the submarine scandal.

In September 2000, then-attorney general and subsequently Deputy Chief Justice Elyakim Rubinstein issued a scathing public report about suspicions that Netanyahu accepted gifts while serving his first term as prime minister. Rubinstein wrote, “Elected officials and public servants, not to mention those at the top of the pyramid and those alongside them, [must] ensure they do not fail in any way. … Even if the weight of evidence does not meet the standard for a criminal conviction, it contains a degree of ugliness." What was considered ugly in those days is currently covered by heavy layers of makeup and rewarded with the spotlight.

“One cannot end without expressing hope that the Israeli public will in the future be able to feel that its servants are not its masters, and that they’re doing their job for the sake of the public out of honesty and integrity,” Rubinstein summed up. One should add, "out of respect for the rule of law and defense of democracy," which should have gone without saying in a civilized state, especially one that presumes to serve as a light unto nations.

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Found in: israeli democracy, israeli police, case 4000, indictment, bribery, corruption, benjamin netanyahu

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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