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.ramzybaroud.net. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud