Opinion

No More Corrupting Coalition Deals

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after polls for Israel's general elections closed in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
Ariel Schalit,AP

The ugliest election campaign ever ended on Tuesday. All efforts will now be invested in coalition building, and the possibilities are more than what you may think. For life after the election to look less ugly than life before, we need to make sure that coalition agreements don’t include clauses like the one in 2015 that bolstered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s power over the communications market.

That clause would later embroil Netanyahu in the case involving Israel’s telecom giant Bezeq. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit intends to indict Netanyahu for fraud, breach of trust and bribery in this case. The clause reads: “The government will introduce comprehensive reforms in the communications market. Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and the other parties joining the coalition commit to support these reforms. Additionally, the coalition partners will not back communications-related bills without the approval of the communications minister, and will oppose any such initiative/bill that the communications minister opposes.”

Netanyahu sought to control the entire communications market through this clause and to prevent the passage of a law that would hobble the Netanyahu-aligned freebie Israel Hayom. However, the prime minister’s taste for power grew; he also used this clause to advance the interests of Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq and the Walla news site, despite the fact that Netanyahu’s long-standing friendship with Elovitch created a conflict of interest.

The clause, known as “Clause 65.” reflected Netanyahu’s desire to control the communications market. It also contains more than a hint of his greater longing, to control all of Israel's watchdogs. According to the indictment the attorney general has issued against Netanyahu pending a hearing, he tried to defame his political rivals on the right – Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon and Ayelet Shaked. Anyone who expected him to wield his considerable power at Walla to promote a political ideology was disappointed. Everything is personal. Only after Gidi Weitz’s exposé in Haaretz on the friendship between Netanyahu and Elovitch did Mendelblit instruct Netanyahu not to be involved in the affairs of Elovitch and Bezeq. That was too late.

The formation of the new government seems to be more complicated than after previous elections because of a number of developments. First, there is Netanyahu’s legal predicament and the attempt to secure for him immunity from prosecution. Then there is U.S. President Donald Trump’s purported plan to present a diplomatic deal. On top of that, add a series of commitments along the lines of “we won’t enter a coalition with...” which were voiced during the campaign as well as the multitude of parties entering the Knesset. These factors make the person forming the next coalition vulnerable to pressure and open a door to very problematic coalition agreements.

As opposed to the previous election, in which Netanyahu had a great deal of power relative to his partners on the right, the multiplicity of parties and his delicate legal situation diluted that power. Consequently, Netanyahu will offer the world in exchange for agreement to protect him from prosecution. That arrangement will lead to dangerous entanglements of his partners in dubious deals that will not last but will publicly expose their shamefulness and immorality.

Clause 65 embodies the greatest danger in a coalition agreement: serving extraneous, dangerous and undemocratic interests. It gives one man huge power to control the media's fate and thereby eviscerate the watchdogs. If Netanyahu forms the next government, he will seek though coalition agreements to neuter the watchdogs, but this time not only the media, but also the attorney general, the prosecution and the police, too. A coalition agreement by nature contains compromises and guidelines. But 2015’s Clause 65 is a crucial reminder that the next coalition agreement must be free of dubious clauses. It was based on the prime minister’s controlling the communications market for personal gain; it lacked checks and balances and it constituted the doorway, which in fact opened, to another criminal entanglement for Netanyahu.