Analysis

If True, This Is the Worst Case of Government Corruption in Israel's History

The fact that someone thought such a senior judge could be bribed with the offer of a lofty position is just one shocking aspect of the affair

Israeli judge Hila Gerstl at the Knesset in Jerusalem in March, 2016.
Emil salman

With each passing day, the severity of government corruption in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his family and his cronies were allegedly involved ratchets up a notch.

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The first attempt to gain control of Israel’s law enforcement system for corrupt and criminal purposes famously took place in late 1997. Netanyahu, who was prime minister then as well, was one of the main suspects in that case – but the attempted takeover was not meant to benefit him. 

Rather, it was meant to benefit Arye Dery, who was ultimately the only person charged. Dery, who today heads Shas and holds the Interior Ministry portfolio, was suspected of seeking to appoint a friendly attorney general, Roni Bar-On, in hopes of obtaining a plea bargain in his bribery case. He allegedly conditioned his Shas party’s support for the Hebron Protocol, under which Israel handed most of the West Bank city over to the Palestinians, on Bar-On’s appointment.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, 2015.
Emil salman

Twenty-one years have passed, and the same suspicion has arisen: an attempt to gain control over the attorney general’s post by appointing someone “likeminded.” Netanyahu’s strategic advisor, Nir Hefetz, allegedly offered former Judge Hila Gerstl the attorney general’s job – which she wanted – if she would close a case against Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, involving financial improprieties at the prime minister’s official residences. 

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Eli Kamir, a strategic advisor close to Gerstl, is suspected of being the middleman who passed the proposal on to her, but she rejected it adamantly. If this story proves true, it would constitute the worst case of government corruption in Israel’s history.

One shocking aspect of it is the very fact that someone thought such a senior, experienced judge could be bribed with the offer of a lofty position into swaying judicial decisions. In that, it differs from the Hebron-Bar-On affair, in which nobody ever suggested that Bar-On had been told his appointment was conditional on making a particular decision. In that case, the parties merely sought Bar-On’s appointment because his known views made them believe he would prove sympathetic. 

The suspicion that Hefetz tried to bribe Gerstl turn this into the latest twist in what is known as the Bezeq case into the Hebron-Bar-On affair squared. The Bezeq case, also known as Case 4000, involves suspicions that the Communications Ministry helped Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in various ways in exchange for favorable coverage of Netanyahu by the Walla internet news site. Both Bezeq and Walla are owned by businessman Shaul Elovitch.

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An even graver aspect of this new suspicion is that Hefetz’s offer implies the government had the ability to game the work of the search committee which recommends candidates for attorney general in a way that would ensure the outcome the prime minister wanted – or at least, that Hefetz thought it did. He apparently considered the search committee unimportant, since he was able to promise that the preferred candidate would be chosen. This casts a heavy shadow over current Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the entire institution of the attorney general.

Police will also have to question Gerstl and anyone with whom Gerstl shared this information. The fact that she told others about the proposal shows she understood its gravity. She almost certainly also understood its criminality. Thus the question of why she didn’t complain to law enforcement officials about this corrupt proposal in real-time must be investigated.

The responsibility now resting on Mendelblit’s shoulders is among the weightiest responsibilities any gatekeeper against public corruption has borne in Israel’s history. He must take this investigation to the end in order to fully expose the degree to which the prime minister and his cronies were involved in the process of appointing the attorney general. Full light must be shed on this process if we want to preserve public faith in the law enforcement system.