Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the person who introduced negative campaigning to Israeli public life. From “Peres will divide Jerusalem” in 1996 to the effort over the past year to portray Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz as unstable, Netanyahu has repeatedly played the hatred card all the way to the ballot box.
But before this week’s election, Netanyahu apparently crossed the line between ugly and illegal. With his approval, the business intelligence firm CGI Group was hired to try to dig up incriminating information on Gantz. Having a rival put under surveillance may be a lowly act, but it’s not illegal. Still, based on the way the investigation was funded, it appears to have violated the law.
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Payment for the probe, which totaled hundreds of thousands of shekels, was made through a shell company, violating the Party Financing Law, which explicitly requires political parties to pay their own campaign costs. Also, Netanyahu was allegedly involved in obtaining the recording of a conversation between Israel Bachar, Gantz’s strategist at the time, and Rabbi Guy Havura, as reported by Ilana Dayan of Channel 12 News. In the recording, Bachar described Gantz as “a danger” to the state.
This connects to the alleged attempts to blackmail Kahol Lavan MK Omer Yankelevich. Yankelevich was contacted after the election and told that if she didn’t defect to Likud, embarrassing personal information about her and Gantz would be revealed – the source of this information is allegedly the part of the Havura-Bachar conversation that hasn’t been released. According to TheMarker, Netanyahu’s attorney, Yossi Cohen, promised Netanyahu to obtain that personal information through CGI’s investigation of Gantz.
Even assuming that it was Havura who recorded his conversation with Bachar (a person is generally allowed to record a conversation he takes part in), this recording may well have been illegal. The Wiretapping Law forbids the recording or listening to a conversation “for the purpose of revealing things about the intimate relationship between a man and a woman that is not for the purpose of a legal proceeding between the couple.”
Thus the recording and publication of the personal sections of the conversation on a short-lived website on the eve of an election seem to be a violation of the Wiretapping Law in which Netanyahu was personally involved.
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A big question mark now hovers over the reports last year that Iran obtained intimate material on Gantz from his cellphone. While those claims have never been proved, it has been shown that Netanyahu sought to uncover private information on his rival to reinforce the claim that Gantz was vulnerable to blackmail.
Espionage, blackmail, wiretapping and violations of the Party Financing Law have all turned Netanyahu’s 2020 election campaign into the Israeli version of Watergate. The attorney general must order an immediate investigation into these allegations before Netanyahu has a chance to fire him.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.