Analysis

Netanyahu May Not Have to Resign, but He Should

Even if the attorney general decides that the evidence doesn't suffice for a criminal conviction, he can't clear Netanyahu altogether

Netanyahu attends a start of Hanukah ceremony in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel, December 2, 2018.
Ariel Schalit,AP

I’ll start with the assumption, even though it isn’t a certainty, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no legal obligation to resign now that the police and the Israel Securities Authority have recommended charging him in the Bezeq case. Nevertheless, he must resign immediately.

There are numerous elements in this case that make it much worse than previous corruption cases, in terms of both the gravity of the suspicions and the strength of the evidence.

Based on the prima facie evidence, the crimes rise to the highest level of governmental corruption. By law, the only thing a civil servant must do to be guilty of taking bribes is to receive a benefit in the knowledge that the giver expects him to repay it by doing something in his official capacity. It isn’t necessary for him to actually take any official action in exchange.

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But in this case, there were significant official actions: regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch and his Bezeq corporation, including approving Bezeq’s merger with the Yes satellite television company. To do this, Netanyahu employed Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber, who concealed his activity from legal officials and other professionals in various government offices – the same officials whom the current government seeks to castrate in the name of “governability,” and it knows why.

Moreover, an official is guilty of bribe-taking even if the official action he takes in exchange is legitimate. But in this case, the action contradicted the public interest. That in itself constitutes breach of trust, and makes the bribery much worse.

Finally, the benefits Netanyahu and his wife received – favorable press coverage from the Walla internet news site and influence over its executives – are worse than money. The benefits given in ordinary bribery cases don’t in themselves hurt the public. But here, the public suffered serious harm. An important media outlet was corrupted, becoming a tool to serve the Netanyahus, while readers were deceived into thinking it was a genuine media outlet.

If all this is “nothing” in Netanyahu’s eyes, then there’s no choice but to make him a “nothing” in the government.

As for the strength of the evidence, this was a comprehensive investigation comprising hundreds of investigative actions by a joint team from the police’s economic crimes unit and the securities authority. Two of the people closest to Netanyahu, Filber and Nir Hefetz, turned state’s evidence and detailed the corrupt bargain Netanyahu and Elovitch made at the expense of Israel’s citizens.

The investigators were supervised by numerous senior officials in the police and prosecution, including Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. Thus one can assume Sunday’s announcement reflected the prosecution’s opinion as well.

And although Netanyahu gave the investigators his story, in which he claims complete innocence, their statement stressed more than once that they have weighty evidence to refute it.

A shameful quid pro quo

From the standpoint of public norms, of our expectations of our leaders, there’s no reason to use the very high evidentiary standard needed for criminal convictions: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard isn’t used in any other context. For us as citizens, it’s enough that there is a real possibility of the investigators’ conclusions being correct.

Even if Mandelblit decides, after going through the evidence with a fine-tooth comb, that it doesn’t suffice for a criminal conviction (which seems unlikely), he can’t clear Netanyahu altogether; there would remain a reasonable possibility that Netanyahu did have a shameful quid pro quo relationship with Elovitch. Thus for this, there’s no need to await Mandelblit’s decision.

No office holder in either the private or the public sector would remain in office for a moment if the evidence showed a reasonable possibility of such behavior. Thus it’s inconceivable that the highest office holder of all, the head of the executive branch, should retain his lofty position just because, before these suspicions became known, his party won the votes of a mere quarter of Israelis.

The fact that Netanyahu is prime minister – and one who has lately begun acting like a king – makes his insistence on clinging to his office a huge public hazard. He is supposed to set an example for all public servants and the entire public, and that example is now the blackest of the black.

It’s impossible to maintain the rule of law, norms of good government and ethical standards when this is how the head of the system acts. It makes inquiries into the ethics of candidates for senior civil service jobs look ridiculous.

How can we trust that Netanyahu is upholding the public interest after learning what we have from this case – that for him, the public interest is something to be trampled over to promote his personal interests? We’ve already learned that to save his political skin, he’s willing to destroy the law enforcement system and the public’s faith in it.

His personal interest in political survival will now lead him to increase these efforts if he remains in office. And we’ve already learned that someone fighting for his political future is liable to use his official powers in other fields as well to save his skin.

The fight against government corruption cannot be won if it relies solely on criminal enforcement. The main arena in which political corruption will be defeated or emerge victorious is the public one. Only when the public shows that it won’t tolerate governmental corruption does the battle against it have any chance of succeeding.

Sunday’s announcement about the Bezeq case could become a decisive moment in the public battle against government corruption if the public forcefully demands that Netanyahu go. But if only a whimper of protest emerges, our lives will be at the mercy of corrupt officials.

Netanyahu’s political partners – members of his own party and the other parties in his governing coalition – have a special obligation to show him the door until the cloud over him is lifted, if it is. If they don’t, they are siding with government corruption and cannot be cleansed of this sin.

And if any life is left in the opposition, no issue justifies breaking the rules of the game more than this one.

Netanyahu himself is being put to the test as well – the test of his loyalty to the state and its welfare. If he is an Israeli patriot who puts the state’s welfare above his own, he must go.