Analysis

Emulating Trump’s Anti-whistleblower Campaign, Israeli Justice Minister Ohana Flouts the Law to Protect Netanyahu

After alleging a 'deep state' in Israel’s legal system, Ohana breaks gag order to taint a witness and to undercut Netanyahu’s imminent indictment

Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks to the press on November 6, 2019.
Emil Salman

Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana alighted the Knesset podium on Wednesday and broke the law, or so it seems. Ohana violated a court-imposed gag order pertaining to the police questioning of Nir Hefetz, a former media adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu and current state’s witness in his criminal investigations. Ohana claimed in his defense that he was only repeating information that had already been published, though no one has been able to locate his alleged source.

Since his temporary appointment in June as Justice Minister, Ohana has emerged as Bibi’s version of U.S. Attorney General William Barr. Just as Barr has directed his efforts at undermining the “Ukrainegate” and “Russiagate” investigations against Trump, Ohana is doing his part to undercut the legitimacy of the current criminal proceedings against the prime minister.  He blatantly broke the gag order in order to publicize the fact that police had allegedly summoned a young woman with whom the married Hefetz had purportedly been having an affair in order to pressure the former media adviser to turn against his former boss.

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The purpose of the revelation was to discredit Hefetz’s testimony in advance of the attorney general’s imminent decision on whether to indict Netanyahu, and on what charges. Even though Israel does not have an equivalent to the Miranda warnings and Israeli courts routinely accept testimony and evidence even if these were gathered in contravention of existing rules and regulations, Netanyahu’s defenders pounced on Ohana’s revelations as well as a series of other leaks from Hefetz’s testimony to declare it null and void. Suddenly, they care about the police's conduct.

With the active support of their fans in the media, Netanyahu’s disciples went on to demand that the entire case against Netanyahu in the so-called Case 4000– which deals with regulatory exemptions allegedly given to the Bezeq telecommunications giant in exchange for positive coverage in the Bezeq-owned news outlet Walla – be quashed. This, despite the fact that Hefetz’s testimony is corroborated by copious amounts of documents, emails and text messages, and notwithstanding the fact that the state’s case against Netanyahu in the Bezeq affair does not rely on Hefetz alone.

Ohana has thus enlisted himself and his august position in Netanyahu’s do or die campaign to avert prosecution. In doing so, he is also buttressing a general right-wing effort to erode public trust in Israeli institutions of law. Like in the famous parable of the man who murdered his parents and then asked for the court’s mercy because he is an orphan, Ohana cites the growing public distrust of Israel’s legal system, portraying himself as a virtual vox populi. Along with other ideologues who seek to detach Israel’s legal system from its Western, liberal and constitutional roots and replace them with conservative, nationalist and ethnocentric “Jewish values,” Ohana conveniently ignores the fact that he and his fellow campaigners are the main parties responsible for the erosion of public trust in the first place.

Ohana’s decision to attack the justice system for which he is responsible and to flout hitherto accepted norms and traditions – and in his case, the law itself – provides yet another striking parallel between the current states of Netanyahu’s Israel and Donald Trump’s United States. Like Barr, Ohana puts his personal loyalty to Netanyahu above his sworn duty to uphold the law and to support its practitioners.

And just as Trump and his minions have been openly, unashamedly and illegally calling for the public exposure of the original whistleblower in the Ukraine aid-for-dirt on Joe Biden scandal, Ohana has openly flouted the law in order to undermine Hefetz’s testimony and thus deter Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit from indicting the prime minister; of the three potential indictments against Netanyahu, the Bezeq case is the most severe, entailing a potential accusation of bribery, and not just fraud and breach of trust as in the other two.

Both assaults, on Hefetz and on the whistleblower, are only one aspect of the overall and disturbingly identical campaigns initiated by Netanyahu and Trump to undermine the legitimacy and erode public trust in their investigators and prosecutors. Both incidents prove their willingness to sacrifice their countries’ hitherto admired legal systems for their own personal gain. And both delegitimization efforts are symptoms of the gradual mutation of their respective right-wing parties, which now place the welfare of their leader clearly and distantly above the wellbeing of their country.

In both cases, the assaults on the established status quo are not limited to their legal systems alone. Both Trump and Netanyahu strive to counter the negative influence of press revelations about their alleged illicit conduct by attacking their veracity and by tainting journalists as political hacks. Both have also cast doubt on the integrity of their electoral systems, preparing themselves for the possibility of an electoral loss that they will refuse to recognize.

In both cases, the central figures of both Netanyahu’s Likud and Trump’s GOP have either turned into willing accomplices of their leaders’ blatant efforts to subvert the very concept of the rule of law – or are too cowardly to speak out against them. In both cases, senior party figures are terrified of potential retaliation by their “bases,” which continues to support both Trump and Netanyahu come what may, no matter what damaging information about their conduct comes to light.

The conventional assumption among their opponents is that with the departures of Trump and Netanyahu – by trial or by electoral fire – politics will return to its previous form, which, despite its myriad deficiencies, seems today like a paradise lost. That assessment may be overoptimistic.

Neither Trump nor Netanyahu created the mass resentment against their countries' legal systems in particular or their so-called elitist establishments in general – they only enhanced and exploited it. Neither Trump nor Netanyahu is responsible for his electorate’s growing reliance on “deep state” conspiracy theories and their increasing disbelief in reality, especially if delivered by a news outlet marked by Trump and/or Netanyahu as biased; they only amplified it a thousand times over. And neither Trump nor Netanyahu gave birth to the collaborators and kowtowers that surround them; they only eliminated their more scrupulous colleagues and replaced them with their loyal and willing toadies.

Both are bound to fail – Netanyahu’s scare tactics are unlikely to prevent his imminent indictments, just as Trump’s serial character assassinations of hostile witnesses and Democratic legislators are unlikely to derail his impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. It will be far more difficult, however, to neutralize the toxins with which they are currently poisoning the public mind and which will continue to infest their political parties long after they leave the scene.

In fact, the political polarization that Trump and Netanyahu create, the divisions they sow, the distrust that they disseminate and the ensuing collapse of common ground and civil discourse between their countries’ two political blocs will probably be their most enduring legacies. And it will take many years to kill the anti-democratic viruses with which Netanyahu and Trump have deliberately infected their respective right-wing flanks, on the dubious assumption that their current psychotic and self-destructive condition is at all curable.