Analysis

In Israel, No Gatekeepers to Stop Netanyahu's War on Media

A prime minister who's offered a bribe by a media magnate cannot maintain his position as commissar of media affairs campaigning to eliminate the free press in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in 2015.
AFP

Could an interior minister suspected of doing a deal with an oligarch like promising to grant him an Israeli passport in return for campaign funding continue his work while he's under a criminal investigation? Or what about an environmental protection minister recorded negotiating with a tycoon over a bill to turn his garbage dumps into a monopoly in return for huge bribes? Could he continue to deal with waste disposal?

In the era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it turns out such things are entirely possible. No politicians with backbone can be found anywhere near him, nor are there powerful gatekeepers to stop his obsession against the most important constitutional principle: freedom of expression.

For months, Justice Ministry lawyers prepared their explosive material: hours of recordings in which Netanyahu corruptly negotiates with the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Arnon Mozes. Netanyahu's governing coalition would pass a law worth a fortune for Mozes in return for mortgaging journalistic freedom and handling the big guy with kid gloves.

During this long waiting period, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and his staff looked on from the sidelines at another affair that jibes with the Netanyahu-Mozes case: the attempt by Netanyahu to eliminate the new public broadcasting corporation, known as Kan. Apparently, Netanyahu harbored a deep suspicion that the new institution now being created wouldn't promise him positive coverage, hire journalists close to him, automatically adopt his narrative, and pile on the empathy.

Netanyahu’s attack on the new public broadcaster didn't make Mendelblit and his staff speed up the criminal investigation into the Mozes affair, even though it had been revealed that Netanyahu’s cronies were pressuring Kan's chiefs, who were dependent on them, to hire Netanyahu fans for key roles while distancing his critics.

Today too, months after the Netanyahu-Mozes case went public, Mendelblit hasn't taken the only logical step possible and notified Netanyahu that until his legal fate is decided in the newspaper-bribery affair, he can't keep handling media matters. This would be a proportionate step that wouldn't interfere with the prime minister's core role and would aim to protect the public interest.

“You're a suspect in an attempt to give a bribe: positive coverage and the assignment of journalists in return for passage of a bill,” Mendelblit should have told Netanyahu. “Until the cloud is lifted, you can't deal with the future of Israel's media bodies.”

Instead, Mendelblit this week took an active part in the negotiations between Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon; in the end he approved the deal that leaves the news divisions of the old Israel Broadcasting Authority in place while discarding the news people from the new public broadcaster. The reasonable conclusion is that the IBA will wind up a media institution very beneficial for Netanyahu.

The role of a gatekeeper is to defend the law and democracy in their broadest and most profound meanings, not in a narrow, technical and formal sense. A few weeks ago, under the shadow of a petition to the High Court of Justice, Mendelblit recommended to Netanyahu to give up the communications portfolio, which he also held in addition to the foreign affairs portfolio. The last few weeks have made it very clear that the temporary transfer of the communications portfolio to fellow Likudnik Tzachi Hanegbi was nonsense.

It's possible that if the High Court had heard the petition that asked to forbid Netanyahu from serving as communications minister, the justices, even in their present version that's chummy enough for the government, would have accepted the petition based on the claim that a minister can't handle affairs where he's so significant a criminal suspect. Such a step would have forced Netanyahu to recuse himself from media affairs, which also take precious time from his daily affairs, and in particular from ours.

But instead of proper government procedure and at least a semblance of justice, we got a masquerade ball: Netanyahu, who in practice is still the communications minister, and Mendelblit, who with one hand curbs Netanyahu and with the other lets him remain the commissar of media affairs campaigning to eliminate the free press.