Opinion

How Israel Covers Up Corruption by Its Spies, Soldiers and Arms Dealers

Israel's security apparatus is in bed with an over-collaborative judiciary to hide dirty deals and espionage from public scrutiny

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Israel's security apparatus is in bed with its over-collaborative judiciary to hide cases of corruption and espionage from public scrutiny
Israel's security apparatus is in bed with its over-collaborative judiciary to hide cases of corruption and espionage from public scrutinyCredit: AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Israel’s law enforcement authorities have proven time and time again that despite political and other pressures, they are determined to respect the rule of law. The indictment against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, court sentences - which sent former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Moshe Katsav, Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, and dozens of other members of Knesset to jail - are a case in point.

Their basic approach is that corruption must be uprooted, without any reservations of "Yes, but."

Yet, when it comes to the Israeli military, intelligence and security bodies, the police, the prosecution and the courts show less determination. They are softer and more flexible - and thus they hurt what must be an uncompromising battle against corruption - the misuse of power and of public funds.

When cases of bribery or fraud in the Mossad, Defense Ministry or IDF special forces units are exposed, the security and defense services request special consideration from the police: that the potential damage to state secrets and concern that operational details will be revealed.

True, the police don't go as far as giving them free rein - they and other investigating units tend to arrest suspects, including from the security establishment, if required - but at the same time the security services will rush to court to request wholesale gag orders. The judges, who years ago turned into the security establishment's rubber stamp, are more than happy to comply.

And in very rare cases when journalists or lawyers are allowed to be present at these kinds of court hearings, the judges will very quickly ask them to leave so they can hear the evidence behind closed doors. 

These gag orders are so comprehensive that it is forbidden even to hint that they were issued at all. Journalists and the public at large are forbidden to reprint and reference reports about the case - even if they've already been published, whether locally or abroad.

It's an absurdity reminiscent of the urban legend about a Turkish admiral who was ordered to send his fleet to the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. He didn’t find it, and to cover up his failure, just invented a different, but ludicrous, reality: on his return, he declared that Malta didn't actually exist.

The twisted logic of the Israeli security establishment, backed by the judiciary, is that if there's a story that's alive on the internet, but not repeated in Israel's local media - it doesn’t exist. According to their logic, a gag order creates an impermeable bubble around Israel's inhabitants, through which unauthorized information cannot pass. The only flaw with this theory is that it's nonsense. If the entire world can read or see a story online, so can any member of the Israeli public who actually wants to do so.

Demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his indictment on corruption charges. Tel Aviv, 23 Nov 2019
Demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his indictment on corruption charges. The public doesn't even know about corruption cases in the security services. Tel Aviv, 23 Nov 2019Credit: Daniel Bar-On

In the last decade I have witnessed personally how almost every investigation involving military or intelligence personnel suspected of espionage, or involvement in financial corrupt arms deals, was covered up with thick layers of secrecy and immediately hidden under gag orders. In many cases those gag orders are maintained for many years after the case is completed, the judges have issued their rulings and the suspects sent to jail.

There are various cases of this nature that we in the Israeli media can’t report about - for the same reasons. One of those cases was summed up by a prosecution's brief, laconic press release issued a few weeks ago. It only stated that a serious bribery case involving millions of Israeli shekels, concerning a security agency and the purchasing of "equipment," resulting in the arrest of several individuals, is being investigated.

Silencing and censoring the media and the public in security cases undoubtedly leads to a culture in which when faced with the need to prosecute, security chiefs habitually cut corners and cut deals, contaminating the legal process and making a mockery of it. Justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done.

Israel's security apparatus and its over-collaborative judiciary would do well to look up, then commit to memory, the words of U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis: "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."

Corruption is corruption is corruption. Even for Israel's vital and much-storied security establishment, there can't be any exceptions.

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