Israel’s administrative state is out of control.
The Israeli police’s announcement on Sunday that the department is recommending that Israel’s Attorney General indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery and breach of trust is not a testament to the investigators’ bold determination to see that justice is done even among the most powerful.
Rather, it is a testament to the determination of Israel’s “deep state” to unseat a popular and popularly elected leader.
How do we know this? First, the case against Netanyahu – and his wife Sara, whom the police also recommend indicting – makes no sense.
Netanyahu’s alleged crimes relate to decisions he made during his tenure as Minister of Communications. Netanyahu held that portfolio in addition to serving as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister from 2015 through 2017. His allegedly corrupt actions involve the Communications Ministry’s decision to approve the merger of Bezeq – Israel’s telecommunications giant and former monopoly — with YES, Israel’s satellite television provider.
Netanyahu is accused of approving the merger that allegedly gave a billion shekels – or some $300 million – in regulatory and tax breaks to Yes, enriching Bezeq owner Shaul Elovich. Elovich and his wife Iris are friends with Netanyahu and his wife Sara.
Elovich allegedly repaid – that is, bribed – Netanyahu for his allegedly preferential treatment by providing the prime minister and his wife Sara with positive coverage on Israel’s Walla Internet news portal, which is owned by Bezeq.
Neither the “quid” – that is, preferential regulatory and tax treatment – nor the “quo” – positive coverage on a website – withstand scrutiny.
On the regulatory side, there are several problems with the claims against Netanyahu. First, as the Hebrew-language investigative journalism magazine Mida reported, he wasn’t involved with the Bezeq-Yes merger. It was handled by his then-director general Shlomo Filber. Filber, who signed a deal to serve as a state’s witness against Netanyahu in March, claims now that he was acting as Netanyahu’s errand boy in approving the merger.
Even if Filber’s claim is true, the fact is that there is nothing wrong with the merger from a legal or financial perspective. The deal was approved by all the relevant legal and regulatory authorities at the time. And one of the odd aspects of the criminal probe against Netanyahu is that the regulators who approved the deal were never called in for questioning by police investigators.
The second aspect of the “quid” part of the allegations against the Netanyahus is that that the tax and regulatory breaks that Yes received were standard breaks. As financial reporter Eli Zippori, from Israel’s Globes Hebrew-language business newspaper, noted, Yes received tax rebates because it was losing millions of shekels. Similar tax breaks were granted to Yes’s chief competitor, HOT cable television provider. And no one ever batted a lash.
The regulators’ decision to permit Bezeq and YES to merge was controversial. But it was also reasonable. It improved the lot of consumers. Zippori explained that the merger enabled the two firms to provide the public with discounted service bundles that included landlines, Internet service, and television service.
In exchange for permitting Yes and Bezeq to work together, Bezeq was required to permit private Internet providers to operate off its communications infrastructure. As a consequence, today 550,000 Israelis — some 5 percent of Israel’s total population — receive Internet access through such services.
Indeed, it appears that the main loser in the Bezeq-YES merger was Bezeq. Since the merger went through, Bezeq’s stocks have nosedived. Its losses owe almost entirely to the rise of wholesale Internet providers operating off of Bezeq’s infrastructure. Since Netanyahu made Bezeq’s agreement to permit wholesale providers to use its infrastructure, far from giving Elovich a sweetheart deal, Netanyahu nearly bankrupted Bezeq.
This then brings us to the “quo.” Just as Netanyahu didn’t help Elovich, Elovich didn’t help Netanyahu. As analyses of Walla’s coverage of Netanyahu and his wife during the period in question in the Hebrew media make clear, the website, associated with the political left, was implacably hostile to Netanyahu. Some 75 percent of the articles about him were negative. The same was true for articles about his wife. That included both “straight” news stories and opinion pieces.
The argument that the investigations against Netanyahu are inherently prejudicial is strengthened when they are viewed in the context of the police’s general treatment of relations between politicians and media moguls.
Whereas Netanyahu is being demonized as a crook for allegedly hoping that his friend would give him and his wife better coverage, dozens of Israeli politicians whose horse-trading with media moguls was far clearer and more profitable are not being investigated for their actions.
For instance, in 2014, 43 out of 120 members of Israel’s Knesset voted in favor of a bill in a preliminary reading that would have put Israel’s largest circulation newspaper, Israel Hayom, out of business. The bill was reportedly drafted by lawyers for Israel Hayom’s chief competitor, Yediot Ahronot. Had the bill passed into law, Yediot Ahronot stood to gain hundreds of millions of shekels in additional sales.
Netanyahu chose to dismantle his coalition government and go to early elections to block the bill from being passed. None of the 43 lawmakers who passed the bill was investigated by police. Then Israeli minister of justice and now opposition leader Tzipi Livni was never asked why she introduced the bill, written by Yediot Ahronot’s lawyers, to the Knesset.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, was subjected to a separate criminal probe relating to a conversation he had with Yediot Ahronot’s owner, Arnon Mozes, which Netanyahu taped. In it, the two men discussed the possibility of Netanyahu asking Israel Hayom’s owner, Sheldon Adelson, to cut back circulation and in exchange to receive positive coverage from Yediot Ahronot. In the event, Netanyahu took no such action, and Yediot’s coverage of Netanyahu is implacably hostile.
As for Mozes, in recent weeks, it was reported that during the period in question, then-finance minister Yair Lapid met privately and secretly with Mozes dozens of times. Lapid claims he was asking Mozes for better coverage. Lapid is the head of the center-left Yesh Atid Party, which was a partner in Netanyahu’s coalition following the 2013 elections. At the time, his party controlled the education, social affairs, and science ministries, along with the finance ministry. And the Yesh Atid ministers in those ministries transferred millions of shekels to Yediot in the form of government advertisements.
Lapid has not been questioned by police about his behavior.
In truth, the police are right not to investigate the other politicians for their apparent quid-pro-quo arrangements with Mozes. After all, every politician seeks better and more expansive media coverage of his or her work. That is how they get elected. And every media company in turn trades its ability to provide positive coverage for advantages of one sort or another.
But the fact that the police are right not to investigate other politicians makes it even more obvious that the investigations against Netanyahu and his wife are a bald attempt by unelected bureaucrats to unseat Netanyahu. Their investigations against Netanyahu do not stand up to the slightest scrutiny, whether judged on their own merits or in the context of the wider political realities in Israel.
On Monday evening, Netanyahu lashed out at the police investigators in a speech at his Likud party’s annual Hanukah party. Referring to the investigations as “a witch hunt,” Netanyahu vowed to fight until justice is served.
The problem is that it isn’t merely the police investigators who seem determined to use their power to bring him down. On Tuesday, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit – who has the task of determining whether or not to indict Netanyahu and his wife – defended the police against Netanyahu, thus signaling that he intends to indict the prime minister.
And on Wednesday, Israel’s State Comptroller, retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg, rejected Netanyahu’s request to permit his cousin to pay his legal bills, which are threatening to bankrupt him.
It is hard to know where any of this will lead. Netanyahu is very popular. He is expected to win an unprecedented fourth term in office in next year’s general elections.
To a degree, the blatant prejudice of the investigators may pave the way for needed reforms aimed at restraining Israel’s activist judges, unaccountable prosecutors, and regulatory state. The deep state’s seizure of the powers of elected officials over the past three decades is already the most charged political issue in Israel.
While his party members and coalition partners have been suing for governmental reform to rein in the clerks, Netanyahu has been sitting on the fence. With the latest police recommendations, coupled with the Attorney General’s defense of their assault against him, it is hard to see Netanyahu restraining his colleagues, either during the next campaign or after the he forms the next government.