Analysis

If Netanyahu Can Accept Gifts From a Friend

This is gang war, in which each camp sees corruption only when political rivals are doing it.

Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009.
Daniel Bar-On, Jini

An amusing clip has been making the rounds on social media. It’s from Ehud Olmert’s term as prime minister and shows Benjamin Netanyahu telling the camera that politicians (Olmert) weren’t getting investigated for corruption because the media wasn’t doing its job. The video was uploaded by a Channel 2 reporter.

Netanyahu was right, of course. For years, most of the papers and some of the television news outfits served, covertly or overtly, a small group of politicians and tycoons. Olmert, and before him Ariel Sharon and Avigdor Lieberman, received kid-glove treatment by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily and its popular  website Ynet. 

Reporters for TheMarker and Haaretz – Nati Tucker and Amir Teig – and The Seventh Eye media watchdog website have analyzed the Yedioth system of shielding corrupt politicians and tycoons while they remain in power, then usually turning on them when they can serve no further purpose.

But the mask Netanyahu donned has been falling in the last two years. He never meant to fight or present an alternative to the corrupt methods of Olmert, Sharon and Yedioth owner Arnon Mozes. He wanted to emulate them, add some nationalist right-wing pepper and shore up his rule.

Much of the media is now attacking Netanyahu with gusto, to the applause of his rivals. A two-minute Google search finds records showing how the media protected the corruption of Olmert, Sharon and his sons, and Lieberman. Journalists served the tycoons, bankers and brokers in the world of big money and government, like the Dankners, the Mozeses and Eliezer Fishman.

What, that was wrong?

More than their true faces were exposed in the tapes of the Netanyahu-Mozes talks in which the prime minister is heard promising the publisher huge economic benefits, and the publisher offers comfortable coverage that will ensure him the premiership.

The tapes also exposed the true faces of most of the newspapers and politicians – they take no positions against corruption, waste or the looting of public money. This is a gang war, and each camp sees corruption only when political rivals are doing it.

The silence of 95% of opposition politicians about the Mozes-Netanyahu affair is the clearest smoking gun of structural corruption in Israeli politics on the right, center and left. For a headline, an interview, a picture, a Ynet video or a cover photo on one of the Mozes group supplements, almost everybody in Zionist Union and Yesh Atid would crawl, shove his head in the sand and hope the public moves on quickly.

They seem to clearly see the corrupt ties between big money, government and big media only when it comes to Netanyahu and Israel Hayom, the free daily  published by Sheldon Adelson, mainly because the newspaper is still weak and its website is pathetic.

The tactic of the corrupt on the left and on the right, in politics and in the media, is to declare that everybody is rotten, or they’re adhering to the norm, or that’s how politics works. But don’t buy it. Corruption is a recipe for a collapse in living standards, quality of life and happiness everywhere around the world. The main beneficiaries of the balance between legal and criminal corruption are the strong, the violent, the cronies and the rich. Anybody who sees it as a necessary, inevitable part of the system is dooming future generations to poverty, inequality and social instability.

Haaretz and TheMarker never gave any corrupt politicians a break: not Sharon, not Olmert, and certainly not Lieberman. All Netanyahu’s rivals on the left and the right received appropriate journalistic treatment; Netanyahu himself remembers that well.

In contrast to Olmert and Sharon, who were corrupt and used their contacts, money and friends in the press and business to evade criticism and the law, Netanyahu’s tactic is different. He paints himself as hounded by the “left” and invents ideologies and ideas that, if implemented, would rapidly destroy Israel’s public service.

Netanyahu made the first move a year ago, crushing the regulators in his path to turning the natural gas deal he built for Yitzhak Tshuva and the U.S. company Noble Energy into a monopoly protected from regulation and competition. The deputy accountant general, Avi Licht, warned that the monopoly would vanquish democracy, but was forced by the prime minister to approve the deal. Meanwhile the various arms of the defense establishment offered weird and wonderful opinions in favor of the monopoly for bizarre security and diplomatic reasons.

Arnon Milchan and Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2005.
David Silverman/Getty Images

With friends like these

And now the prime minister is suggesting a new concept regarding the conduct of civil servants.

In a belligerent speech in the Knesset, Netanyahu explained that it’s “all right to accept gifts,” after it was revealed that for years he and his wife demanded expensive presents from the billionaire Arnon Milchan, using the code words “pink” for champagne and “leaves” for cigars. The mere fact that Netanyahu used code words indicates that he knew that asking Milchan for expensive gifts wasn't normal.

But let's stop for a second and think about Netanyahu’s new concept: that it’s “okay to accept presents from friends.” Here are some thoughts.

1. Are Netanyahu and Milchan really friends? Can relations between a billionaire and a leading political figure be called friendship? Hardly. Their “friendship” flowered after both were firmly entrenched in their powerful positions and could help each other.  They didn’t go to the Boy Scouts together, or soccer games or even university. They discovered each other’s amity as public figures.

2. Say that Netanyahu and Milchan really were friends since kindergarten; would that free Netanyahu as finance minister, prime minister or a Knesset member to receive gifts from Milchan worth hundreds of thousands of shekels? Would it be okay then?

No it wouldn't. As public figures, and certainly as ones in positions of power like finance minister and prime minister, they can’t take more than a cup of coffee from any “friend.”

The state gives them resources – offices, drivers, secretaries, an official residence, guards and airplane flights, and reimburses practically all their expenses. They don’t need an extra sou from anybody to do their jobs.

Accepting presents from billionaires, even ones who don’t currently need sweetheart regulation, serves only a hunger for honor or greed. Nothing else.

3. Milchan, granted, spends most of his time in the United States, but he has a lot of dealings with the Israeli government. He chose to be an Israeli citizen for tax reasons, owns shares in Channel 10 television and gains prestige in Hollywood by entertaining the Israeli prime minister in his house. He has a lot to gain from his proximity to the premier, not only financially. It's hard to see the gifts he bestows on the Netanyahus as mere philanthropy and altruism.

4. If we accept that it’s okay to take presents from friends, we're destroying Israeli society. This isn’t about big or small government, aggressive or gentle regulation. It’s about rot setting in.

Friendships where doctors see their cronies first and the unconnected last will destroy Israel's health care system, which despite its many flaws is still a ray of light compared to the rotten, expensive American one.

Clerks who hand out building permits will suddenly discover they have a lot of friends in the construction community and so on, people who would be happy to send over a “pink” or two for their affairs to be promoted.

The Israeli real estate market is already a vast machine transferring from the have-nots to the haves. The buddy system will make it that much worse.

Allowing friends to take presents is asking to destroy Israel’s civil service and social capital; it will spur inequality and inefficiency. Just place corruption on the X axis and quality of life on the Y axis, and their inverse relationship will leap out. Corruption, conflicts of interest, back-room dealings – these are a recipe for destroying society.

Of course, it’s easier to natter about left and right, religious and secular, Mizrahi or Ashkenazi. That spares us from looking in the mirror and taking action. But if we don’t stand tall when the prime minister suggests normalizing legal and criminal corruption, by the time we wake up, it will be too late.