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Opinion: Transparency or ‘omerta’?

Last month, police recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted for bribery and breach of trust in two corruption cases.

A slew of investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is bringing out some of the worst in Israel’s vaunted pillars of democracy

MARCH 8, 2018 – JERUSALEM – A few weeks ago, Trans-parency International, which monitors corruption in 180 countries and territories, announced the rankings for its 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index. In first place, meaning least corrupt, was New Zealand. It was followed by Denmark and, in a three-way tie, Finland, Norway, and Switzerland. The US was ranked 16th.

Down in 32nd place – a four-place decline from 28th in 2016 – was Israel, with one of the worst scores among 35 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It came in behind Estonia and even Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and just one slot ahead of Botswana.

With this kind of ranking, you know something is going on. What’s going on is that on Feb.13, police recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted for bribery and breach of trust in two corruption cases.

One, dubbed Case 1000, involves lavish gifts for Netanyahu and his wife, allegedly in return for favors. Because the gifts involved lots of champagne and cigars, it has long held the public’s fascination.

The second, Case 2000, alleges that Netanyahu conspired with the publisher of a newspaper and the country’s most popular news website seeking positive coverage in return for reining in a competitor: a free, pro-Netanyahu paper. (The deal was never consummated.)

This is not the first time – or even the second – that police have recommended Netanyahu be indicted. Two other instances focused on his first term in office, in the late 1990s. They involved a suspicious high-level appointment and allegations that he had kept official state gifts and used state funds to renovate his private home.

It’s important to keep in mind that in Israel, at the end of the day, it’s the attorney general, not the police, who decides whether high government figures are to actually be indicted, whether based on police recommendations or merely a value judgement as to whether a trial would be in the public’s interest. In both cases, the attorney general at the time saw scant chance for convictions and the matters were dropped.

Israel’s current attorney general has some decisions to make. But cases 1000 and 2000 now seem like chump change when compared to the latest development in one of two other corruption investigations in which Netanyahu, until now, had been only a peripheral figure.

One, called Case 3000, involves the purchase of submarines and surface ships for the Navy. Netanyahu’s personal lawyer invoked the prime minister’s name to steer the contracts to another of his clients, who represented a German shipyard. It’s not clear whether the prime minister knew this or stood to benefit.

But now Case 4000, which all along seemed the least sexy and least understood of the four cases, has broken wide open.

Case 4000 originally involved allegations that a former Netanyahu aide, by now director-general of the Communications Ministry, had received prodding from Netanyahu – who at the time was acting communications minister – to facilitate deals valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars toward a certain communications tycoon.

The director-general, perhaps with no small amount of naïveté, assumed the goal was to improve the communications sector. But the tycoon also happened to own the country’s second most-eyeballed news website. While being questioned by police investigators, the director-general was played a tape making it clear that the quid pro quo had been solely to spin positive coverage for Netanyahu.

The director-general, who is said to have taken nothing for himself, immediately realized that he had not been working for the good of the communications field – he had been someone’s stooge.

So he turned state’s witness. He was following in the footsteps of another former close aide to Netanyahu who, with legal problems of his own, happened to have critical recordings of conversations the prime minister held with the newspaper publisher from Case 2000. (Netanyahu is known to go through aides like some people go through chewing gum, and some have left his employ deeply disillusioned.)

I’m sure your eyes have glazed over by now. But wait! There’s more! And it basically has to do with the way the system seems to work here.

It soon came out that another suspect in Case 4000, also a close confidant of Netanyahu, may have tried to bribe a judge to drop a case pending against the prime minister’s wife (don’t ask) by promising that in return, the judge would be up for the attorney general’s job. But that’s not the really bad part. The really bad part is that the judge never reported the incident – although she did confide in another judge. She said nothing, either. Today, the second judge is president of the Supreme Court.

Even kookier, it was leaked that the junior judge handling the remand proceedings in Case 4000 had been communicating with a prosecutor involved in the case. The judge was given a severe reprimand and withdrew. Predictably, the suspects’ lawyers demanded that all charges be dropped, though to no avail.

Now add to the mix the fact that Israel’s police force has a less than stellar reputation of its own owing to a rash of corruption and sexual harassment cases within its ranks. At least two involve senior commanders of the very unit that has been investigating Netanyahu and his cronies.

It all led to a recent exchange between two cabinet ministers who, not realizing a nearby microphone was live, marveled at the way so many things suddenly seemed to be going Netanyahu’s way. One of those ministers had served time in prison for taking bribes while interior minister, the post he again holds today – and where he is under yet another corruption investigation. His tone seemed to drip with envy, although it probably was premature, for the suspect who may have tried to bribe the judge has now turned state’s witness, too.

Perhaps the cherry on top was Netanyahu’s Knesset whip who, upon hearing of the latest plea deals, loudly called the state’s witnesses “snitches” and said that when he was a boy, his mother had warned that tattle-tales were some of the worst people in the world. His gutter-level comments drew no rebuke from Netanyahu.

So there you have it. A prime minister beleaguered by myriad legal entanglements; media owners for sale to the highest political bidder; police who have been under siege for their own poor behavior; judges who can’t seem to get their professional ethics straight; and a powerful politician who, like a mafia don, loudly and proudly crows about the virtues of omerta.

“It looks like the main contributing factor, at least in public discourse, is the phenomenon of a lack of personal example in some of the political leaders’ behavior,” a former attorney general and current Supreme Court justice said at a gathering of legal professionals last week. “Everyone is lamenting the lack of leadership.”

Exactly. And many of us can’t wait for Transparency International’s 2018 ratings. They could show us how much we as a country will have learned from all this.

Lawrence Rifkin is a Jerusalem-based journalist.

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