Opinion

The Graft That Netanyahu Unwittingly Admits To

It’s hard to begin to explain how crazy and shocking Netanyahu's remarks were

Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan with Benjamin Netanyahu in 2005.
David Silverman/Getty Image/ ד

In the flood of information about the cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, what he said about Channel 10 didn’t get much attention. “I worked to close Channel 10, of which he [friend and benefactor Arnon Milchan] was an owner. If it weren’t for the attorney general’s instructions, the channel would have closed,” Netanyahu said to defend himself against bribery allegations.

It’s hard to begin to explain how crazy and shocking those remarks are. And yes, I’m writing as someone who has been receiving a salary from Channel 10 for the past 15 years.

The prime minister’s claim is both a gross lie and foolish. Milchan may have formally been a shareholder in Channel 10 during those years, but he had stopped investing money in the channel and himself was working to close it down, so Netanyahu wasn’t working against him in this matter. On the contrary, their interests converged. Netanyahu knows this, it was publicized at the time, and the police investigators know this. So Netanyahu isn’t accomplishing anything with this ridiculous claim other than admitting to breach of trust.

Netanyahu is admitting that he tried to close a media outlet that directly employed hundreds of people and indirectly provided livelihoods for thousands of others, because the channel broadcast damaging investigative reports about him. During some of the time Netanyahu was trying to close the channel down he was also waging two libel suits against it (which he eventually withdrew without receiving compensation or apologies). For Netanyahu to be dealing in any way with the channel was a total conflict of interest.

Netanyahu knew that the channel had material relevant to the state comptroller’s audits into his affairs. Closing the channel wouldn’t have made that material disappear, but presumably it would have been harder to publicize. Netanyahu apparently understood he had a conflict of interest, so he had all kinds of useful idiots insisting to journalists that he wasn’t involved. Nor did he make any public statements about it. Now he has erupted with this amazing confession to an act that is essentially criminal.

A senior tax official, Shuki Vita, was convicted for handling tax arrangements for clients of attorney Jacob Weinroth. Weinroth was also Vita’s lawyer, and thus the court ruled that Vita had a significant conflict of interest. Ehud Olmert was convicted for dealing with requests by companies seeking state investment – companies represented by attorney Uri Messer, who was also Olmert’s attorney. The court ruled that even though Olmert’s decisions regarding those companies weren’t “materially deviant from the norm,” he made them in the context of a serious conflict of interest.

Regarding Channel 10, Netanyahu had a conflict of interest no less serious than either Olmert or Vita, and his actions were indeed “materially deviant from the norm.” No prime minister had ever tried to close a media outlet for those reasons. Netanyahu was determined to shutter the channel, and was stopped only by the attorney general, who was forced to write up some half-baked legal opinion to stop the madness.

Journalist Amit Segal said recently, “There’s a joke about Netanyahu. Why won’t he ever be convicted of bribery? Because a bribe needs a quid pro quo, and Bibi has never given anything to anyone .... I think Bibi is one of the least corrupt prime ministers we’ve had; he’s a hedonist, but he’s not corrupt.” This attitude about Netanyahu has been widely accepted for years, maybe because for many people, unless a half-million shekels ends up in a Swiss bank account, there’s no corruption.

But it turns out that for Milchan, Netanyahu spoke to then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid twice, to then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry several times, met with Indian industrialist Ratan Tata and arranged for Milchan to meet with the Communications Ministry’s director general at the time, Shlomo Filber. For someone who doesn’t know how to provide a quid pro quo, he worked pretty hard for Milchan.

If a person who tried to close a media outlet out of personal interest isn’t corrupt, then what’s corruption?