The tri­als of Ne­tanyahu and Is­rael’s lay­ered cor­rup­tion


Is­raeli so­ci­ety’s ap­par­ent ac­cep­tance of cor­rupt politi­cians might have less to do with the as­sump­tion that they have got­ten used to the idea, and more with the fact that the cul­ture as a whole has grown cor­rupt.

WHETHER or not the cor­rup­tion scan­dals hound­ing Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu lead to his sack­ing mat­ters lit­tle. Though nearly half of Is­raelis polled in July — well be­fore the scan­dals took a much dirt­ier turn — be­lieve that he is cor­rupt, a ma­jor­ity said they would still vote for him. A re­cent sur­vey con­ducted by Is­rael’s Chan­nel 10 TV con­cluded that if gen­eral elec­tions were held to­day, Ne­tanyahu would gar­ner 28 per­cent while his clos­est con­tenders, Avi Gab­bay of the Zion­ist Camp and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, would each gather 11 per­cent of the vote.

“The next stage, which is draw­ing near, is for the cit­i­zens of Is­rael to re-elect a crim­i­nal as their leader and en­trust their fate to him,” lead­ing Is­raeli colum­nist Akiva El­dar wrote in re­sponse to Ne­tanyahu’s con­tin­ued pop­u­lar­ity de­spite ac­cu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion and re­peated po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions. But El­dar should not be sur­prised. Po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, bribery and mis­use of pub­lic funds have been the norm, not the ex­cep­tion, in Is­raeli pol­i­tics.

Alex Roy puts it more suc­cinctly in a re­cent piece in the Times of Is­rael: “The fact that (Ne­tanyahu) still has a good chance of be­ing the prime min­is­ter af­ter these com­ing elec­tions says more about how used to cor­rup­tion we have be­come than how clean he is.” Roy wrote that his coun­try “has got­ten used to po­lit­i­cal crim­i­nals” sim­ply be­cause “each prime min­is­ter over the last quar­ter cen­tury has at some point faced crim­i­nal charges.”

He is right, but there are two ma­jor points that are miss­ing in the dis­cus­sion that had been, un­til re­cently, mostly con­fined to Is­raeli me­dia. First, the na­ture of the sus­pected mis­con­duct of Ne­tanyahu is dif­fer­ent from that of his pre­de­ces­sors. This mat­ters greatly.

Sec­ond, Is­raeli so­ci­ety’s ap­par­ent ac­cep­tance of cor­rupt politi­cians might have less to do with the as­sump­tion that they have “got­ten used” to the idea, and more with the fact that the cul­ture as a whole has grown cor­rupt. And there is a rea­son for it.

Ne­tanyahu’s al­leged cor­rup­tion is rather dif­fer­ent from that of for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Ehud Olmert, who was cor­rupt in the old-fash­ioned way. In 2006, Olmert was found guilty of ac­cept­ing bribes while serv­ing as mayor of Jerusalem. In 2012, he was con­victed for breach of trust and bribery, this time as prime min­is­ter. In 2015, he was sen­tenced to six years in prison.

Other top Is­raeli of­fi­cials were also in­dicted, in­clud­ing Pres­i­dent Moshe Kat­sav, who was con­victed of rape and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice. These charges re­mained largely con­fined to a per­son or two, mak­ing the na­ture of the con­spir­acy quite lim­ited. Is­raeli and Western me­dia pun­dits used such pros­e­cu­tions to make a point re­gard­ing the ‘health’ of Is­rael’s democ­racy, es­pe­cially when com­pared with its Arab neigh­bors.

Things are dif­fer­ent un­der Ne­tanyahu. Cor­rup­tion in Is­rael is be­com­ing more like mafia op­er­a­tions, rop­ing in elected civil ser­vants, mil­i­tary brass, top lawyers and large con­glom­er­ates. The na­ture of the in­ves­ti­ga­tions that are clos­ing in on Ne­tanyahu points to this fact.

He is em­broiled in File 1,000, where he and his wife ac­cepted gifts of large fi­nan­cial value from renowned Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer Arnon Milchan in ex­change for fa­vors that, if con­firmed, re­quired Ne­tanyahu to use his po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence as prime min­is­ter.

File 2,000 is the Yis­rael Hayom af­fair. In this case, Ne­tanyahu reached a se­cret deal with the pub­lisher of the lead­ing Ye­dioth Ahronoth news­pa­per, Arnon Mozes. Ac­cord­ing to the deal, the news­pa­per agreed to cut down on its crit­i­cism of Ne­tanyahu’s poli­cies in ex­change for the lat­ter's prom­ise to de­crease the sale of ri­val news­pa­per Yis­rael Hayom.

Yis­rael Hayom is owned by pro-Is­raeli Amer­i­can busi­ness ty­coon Shel­don Adel­son, Ne­tanyahu’s close and pow­er­ful ally un­til news of the Ye­dioth deal sur­faced. Since then, Yis­rael Hayom has turned against Ne­tanyahu.

File 3,000 is the Ger­man sub­marines af­fair. Top na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sors, all very closely aligned to Ne­tanyahu, were in­volved in the pur­chase of Ger­man sub­marines that were deemed un­nec­es­sary, yet cost the gov­ern­ment bil­lions of dol­lars. Large sums of this money were sy­phoned by Ne­tanyahu’s in­ner cir­cle and trans­ferred to se­cret, pri­vate bank ac­counts. This case, in par­tic­u­lar, is sig­nif­i­cant re­gard­ing wide­spread cor­rup­tion in Is­rael’s up­per­most cir­cles.

Cen­tral to this in­ves­ti­ga­tion are the cousins and two clos­est con­fi­dantes of Ne­tanyahu: His per­sonal lawyer David Shim­ron, and Is­rael’s de-facto For­eign Min­is­ter Isaac Mol­cho. The lat­ter has man­aged to build an im­pres­sive but largely hid­den net­work for Ne­tanyahu, where the lines of for­eign pol­icy, mas­sive gov­ern­ment con­tracts and per­sonal busi­ness deal­ings are largely blurred.

There is also the Bezeq af­fair in­volv­ing Is­raeli telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion gi­ant Bezeq and Ne­tanyahu’s po­lit­i­cal ally and friend Shlomo Fil­ber. Ne­tanyahu was com­mu­ni­ca­tion min­is­ter un­til he was or­dered by a court to step down in 2016. Ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, his hand­picked re­place­ment Fil­ber served the role of spy for the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion pow­er­house, to en­sure crit­i­cal gov­ern­ment de­ci­sions were com­mu­ni­cated in ad­vance to the com­pany.

Most in­trigu­ing about Ne­tanyahu’s cor­rup­tion is that it is not a re­flec­tion of him alone: This is lay­ered cor­rup­tion, in­volv­ing a large net­work of Is­rael’s up­per ech­e­lons. There is more to the Is­raeli pub­lic’s will­ing­ness to ac­cept cor­rup­tion than its in­abil­ity to stop it.

Cor­rup­tion in Is­raeli so­ci­ety has be­come par­tic­u­larly en­demic since the oc­cu­pa­tion of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. The idea that or­di­nary Is­raelis can move into a Pales­tinian house, evict the fam­ily and claim the house as their own with the full sup­port of the mil­i­tary, gov­ern­ment and courts ex­em­pli­fies moral cor­rup­tion to the high­est de­gree.

It was only a mat­ter of time be­fore this mas­sive cor­rup­tion racket — mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion, the set­tle­ment en­ter­prise and the me­dia white­wash­ing of Is­raeli crimes — seeped back into main­stream Is­raeli so­ci­ety, which has be­come rot­ten to the core. While Is­raelis might have “got­ten used” to their own cor­rup­tion, Pales­tini­ans have not, be­cause the price of Is­rael’s moral cor­rup­tion is too high for them to bear.

Ramzy Baroud is a jour­nal­ist, au­thor and ed­i­tor of the Pales­tine Chron­i­cle. His forth­com­ing book is ‘The Last Earth: A Pales­tinian Story’ (Pluto Press, Lon­don). Baroud has a Ph.D in Pales­tine stud­ies from the Univer­sity of Ex­eter. His web­site is www.ramzy­ Twit­ter: @Ramzy­Baroud


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