Verdict in Ashkelon Mayor's Case Doesn’t Bode Well for Netanyahu

PM’s team may cheer the disgraced official’s acquittal of bribery, but ruling actually defends the democratic process - and therefore the prosecution

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Netanyahu speaks at a gala for the Jewish National Fund, November 5, 2019.
Netanyahu speaks at a gala for the Jewish National Fund, November 5, 2019.Credit: Mark Israel Salem

In the “headquarters to save Netanyahu from justice,” people are frantically asking how to use the acquittal of former Ashkelon mayor Itamar Shimoni to favor their prime minister. How to spin the verdict, how to twist its arm until it gives in and agrees to testify on Netanyahu’s behalf.

The ex-official was cleared by a Tel Aviv District Court on Monday of trying to skew news coverage. He was still convicted of bribery, breach of trust and money laundering. But this did not stop some from proposing to use Shimoni’s acquittal, using out-of-context, partial statements from the verdict, to clear Netanyahu of his own accusations of bribery.

They are wrong, and their attempts could backfire. Shimoni was acquitted based on facts related to his case specifically – which have no connection whatsoever to the suspicions against Netanyahu. In fact, legally, the verdict is a heavy blow to Netanyahu's attempts to clear himself of accepting bribes in Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla case – bribes which were provided in the form of positive media coverage.

Netanyahu, his lawyers and supporters have laid out two main lines of defense. The first is primitive and baseless, but catchy in its simplicity: A bribe can only come in the form of money. It’s no surprise that based on the language of the law, the court ruled otherwise in Shimoni's case, laying out a broad canvas of what could possibly be considered a bribe, including benefits that cannot be precisely measured.

According to the verdict, positive and sympathetic publicity, the silencing of public criticism, limiting the positive coverage of political rivals and using the media to harm them could all be considered bribery. Elected officials need renewed and continued public support and trust, the court explained, because they are betrothed to their next election campaign. Their popularity and public image are therefore a constant concern.

Netanyahu’s second line of defense turns him into a defender of freedom of expression, to wit: If police can investigate the relationship between a publisher and elected official, it will effectively endanger freedom of the press, and the whole of the democratic process along with it.

But the court refused to accept this simplistic, one-sided claim.

"It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the media’s role in protecting the fundamental values of the democratic process, including freedom of expression and freedom of opinion," said Judge Limor Margolin-Yehidi. This includes criticism, exposing public injustice, flaws in the actions of authorities and improper behavior, the Tel Aviv District Court ruling emphasized.

This leads to two conclusions, said the judge: Because of the nature and status of the press, the criminal character of specific actions should indeed be determined carefully, because prosecution could cause harm to the fundamental values aforementioned.

But refusing to apply criminal law to cases involving the exploitation of media platforms for personal gain could enable those hostile to a free press to erode its power and credibility, Margolin-Yehidi said. This could allow bribery to take place without anyone being held accountable.

Itamar Shimoni at the Tel Aviv District Court, on November 11, 2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The importance of positive coverage for a specific official must be examined over a period of time - and this definitely applies in Netanyahu's case. All the signs the court pointed to clearly apply in the Bezeq-Walla case. As the prime minister's draft indictement slowly moves to become a fully-fledged indictement, the defense must be sweating quite heavily. 

Unfortunately, the court did not go far enough. A quid pro quo between a media outlet and an official should concern everything of value, not just something related to their specific job. It could be money, a plane ticket to a vacation resort, sexual relations, the repayment of a debt. Even proper and fair media coverage, which could be seen as something the public official is entitled to, can be a bribe, if the coverage was previoulsy biased. The moment the public official profits in any way from imparting favors available to their public position, a threshold is crossed..

The public is entitled to its representatives judgment being businesslike and proper, without it being tainted by outside interests. The minimum officials owe is to act in good faith in order to be worthy of the public’s trust.