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Is Netanyahu’s COVID Grant Plan a Criminal Offense?

The initiative for the grandiose plan was reportedly conceived to the exclusion of professional levels, without any justification for such exclusion

Ido Baum
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP
Ido Baum

The new economic plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, which includes direct grants for a wide swath of the public, is not only election economics. The plan and the way it was accepted justify at least a review by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on the question of whether it constitutes conspiracy to commit election bribery, based on Section 122 of the Knesset Elections Law.

Section 122, titled “Corruption and threat,” mandates a punishment of up to five years imprisonment for anyone who “gives or offers bribery in order to influence a voter to vote for him or to refrain from voting, in general or for a certain list of candidates.” The law stressed that it does not matter whether election bribery is given by the one providing it or is transferred through someone else. In other words, an action that involves directing the Finance Ministry to provide the voting public amounts of money with the conscious intention that doing so will influence their decision at the ballot box is an action that can certainly be deemed a criminal offense.

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Of course, not every populist distribution of benefits or funds is election fraud in the criminal sense, but there are precedents. In the early 1980s, businessman Shmuel Flatto-Sharon was convicted of distributing election bribes during the 1977 campaign in which he was elected to the Knesset as part of a one-man party called Flatto-Sharon.

There is a line connecting the Flatto-Sharon of 1977 and the Netanyahu of 2021. Flatto-Sharon ran for the Knesset in order to avoid extradition to France, where he was wanted, while a legal cloud hovers over Netanyahu with the threat of a trial. After seven years, Flatto-Sharon was convicted of conspiracy to commit election bribery. Flatto-Sharon, who was a wealthy man, promised that he and his rich friends would buy Israel apartments and rent them out at low prices. Additionally, he paid a wage to campaign activists even though they weren’t asked to do a single thing.

The Supreme Court affirmed his conviction in a ruling that detailed the way in which one should distinguish favors given by a candidate close to an election, especially when the candidate claims he acted out of altruistic motives and not in order to influence voters.

The late Justice Dov Levin said: “Because acts of charity or providing a benefit are done precisely before elections can be a cover for bribing voters, we are obliged in such a case to examine very carefully what the true intention is guiding the one making the offer when he demonstrates his charity.”

He explained: “If it becomes clear that the motivation and goal in giving the charity or benefit are, in fact, to garner ballots from the thankful voters who received or were promised to receive the benefit, then the intention is invalid and points to an illegal act.”

Skipping back to our time, the initiative for the grandiose grant plan was conceived, according to reports, to the exclusion of the professional levels, without any justification for such exclusion; in violation of the economic guidelines of the attorney general regarding the restraint required during an election campaign, and to the exclusion of the attorney general. This whole process evokes the need to examine whether in Netanyahu’s heart there was an intention to bribe voters.

It is particularly important these days to read what Levin wrote in the 1980s about the importance of avoiding any influence on voters: “Every act to restrict or eliminate, directly or indirectly, voter freedom of thought and voter ability to truly express the desired plan of action according to their world view, using their own judgment – whether because of a benefit that interfered with this liberty or because of forcing others’ opinion upon them – damages the basic principle of purity of choice and independence.”

Levin ruled that such acts are fundamentally unacceptable. “A different or lenient view on this subject, reconciling with such acts and being dragged along in their wake will necessarily lead to disruption of the democratic process and distorting its image, in that the unavoidable result will be that the wealthy person will also be the influential person, and consequently the authority in every sense of the word,” he stated. There is no graver distortion than this of the principle of the democratic method in an enlightened society.”

Two other justices signed onto these words, which led to Flatto-Sharon’s conviction. One was Moshe Bejski and the other, the prime minister’s aunt, Shoshana Netanyahu.

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