In a Democracy, the Prime Minister Cannot Skew the Media

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Benjamin Netanyahu at Jerusalem's District Court, this week.
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The story of the Case 4000 corruption trial, as revealed in the testimony of Ilan Yeshua, former CEO of the Walla website, is a rather simple one. It is possible to distill the affair, which was exposed by Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz, down to the order that Yeshua testified he’d been given by the owner of Bezeq at the time, Shaul Elovitch, after the publication of a not very flattering article about Sara Netanyahu: “Take it down immediately, I’ll kill you, that’ll stop the approval of Yes.”

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The explanation is simple: In order to receive a regulatory benefit whose value is estimated to be a whole lot of money – the benefit here being the approval of the sale of shares in Yes to Bezeq – Elovitch influenced the editing of the website according to the liking – presumed or dictated – of the prime minister and his family.

Ido Baum wrote in his legal commentary in Haaretz that Yeshua’s testimony, as dramatic as it may have been, is just “second-hand evidence” concerning Netanyahu – in other words, testimony upon which it will be hard to base the connection between Netanyahu himself and the giving of orders for changes in and appointments at the website, which were passed on through intermediaries.

Now the three judges are expected to gather for many months and find an answer to the question of Netanyahu’s part in the mechanism of giving instructions to Yeshua. Moreover, they will be required to decide whether the positive coverage of Netanyahu or the prevention of negative coverage meet the bar of criminality, and whether they also meet the standard for bribery. These are important legal questions that will affect the political chaos in Israel, but the important question that arises from Yeshua’s testimony is moral and ethical.

There are those who collect the negative headlines published about Netanyahu on the Walla website during the period involved, in order to deny what was said in such a direct and clear fashion by Yeshua. But many of Netanyahu’s fans do not deny the facts at all. From the deep pockets of support for Netanyahu have come statements such as: “Two and a half articles are not a bribe,” or “Is it possible to think that other politicians/media outlets act differently?”

In other words, the behavior whereby the prime minister or those close to him influence the editing of a website that presents itself as objective is perhaps not a source of pride – according to Yeshua, the Elovitches asked him to delete correspondence and coordinate versions of their story with Netanyahu – but it can be accepted.

This case is especially interesting because by way of it, Israeli democracy is asking itself what type of democracy it really is. Is it enough to hold elections that reflect the will of the people to establish a democracy – alongside the widespread connections and norms as detailed in the indictment and in Yeshua’s testimony? Or maybe a country in which the press does not act as a critic of the government – any government – but instead is busy keeping it happy cannot be called a democracy at all. Does the newspaper that someone opens or the news broadcast someone else watches aspire to present the information in the most accurate way? Or maybe all of this is just sophisticated scenery for a performance directed by various powerful people.

This is a case of supreme moral importance because the bribes Netanyahu is accused of receiving are not the envelopes stuffed with cash, whose absence is celebrated by his supporters, and not even the luxury goods from Case 1000. The bribe is symbolic wealth – turning freedom of the press into a joke, and trading in what is presented to the public as unsalable: impartial professionalism.

The claims against the media outlets and other politicians are an escape attempt by those who know very well that Netanyahu’s actions were tainted. Without hating or loving Netanyahu, a decent, fair person must look at the case, listen to Yeshua’s testimony and decide: Was the reality at Walla during that period one that can be lived with, or not? In a true democracy, the answer is no.

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