Why Israel’s New Scandal Should Bother Americans

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When I heard that Israeli police had recommended the indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges for the third time, I knew my job: sit down and write a column about how Israel faces a definitional moment in its struggle to maintain democracy and the rule of law.

I’m still going to write that column. The previous two recommended corruption indictments were garden-variety. This third one, known as Case 4000, alleges that the long-serving Netanyahu used his office to confirm major benefits on the acquirer of Israel’s largest national telecommunications provider in exchange for favorable news coverage from a media subsidiary. This kind of conduct, assuming it’s real, genuinely undermines the freedom of the press and endangers democracy’s commitment to rotating government.

But before I go into the details of the scandal and what the Israeli attorney general’s office ought to do with the police recommendation, I have to pause for an admission. As an American, I hold no moral high ground from which to criticize Israel’s engagement with executive corruption.

That’s not because I believe that Americans or other foreigners should butt out of Israeli politics. I have little sympathy for the idea that certain aspects of identity confer special expertise about any body of knowledge or thought.

Rather, the reason I must be humble about analyzing Israel's latest corruption scandal is President Donald Trump.

The U.S. is enmeshed in an extended struggle over suspected and alleged presidential corruption that makes Israel’s seem relatively mild in comparison. The threats to democracy and the rule of law are meaningful in the U.S., not only in Israel.

What follows should therefore be understood in terms of the caveat that traditional rabbis use when delivering lectures about morality and ethics: Whatever I’m about to say applies to me as well as to my audience.

The Israeli situation is really very serious. The last two years, there have been many reports and rumors regarding Netanyahu and corruption. So it might seem easy to dismiss this latest as just more of the same.

That would be a grave mistake. Low-level corruption is one thing. But systematic abuse of power to control the news media threatens democracy itself.

The all-important context for the latest police report is that Netanyahu is on the brink of becoming the longest-serving prime minister of Israel since founding giant David Ben-Gurion. Like other longtime leaders in electoral democracies without term limits, Netanyahu has been attempting to use his accumulated power to preserve his office.

Examples in recent years from Hungary and Turkey show how elected leaders can erode democracy through gradually increasing their control of the press. The process doesn’t have to start with crude censorship. Indeed, it usually begins in a way that appears innocent, with chummy relationships between the leader and press barons.

In Netanyahu’s case, the first step wasn’t illegal at all. A free newspaper, called Israel Today, began providing worshipful coverage of the prime minister and his associates. Funded to a meaningful degree by the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the paper made in-roads into the Israeli media landscape, displacing traditional, paid media. Netanyahu benefited from this game-changer, and it appears to have given him ideas.

In the particular scandal the police have now reported, the prime minister allegedly took steps to help allies of his in their efforts to acquire Bezeq Israeli Telecommunication Corp. The quid pro quo was, according to the police, that Bezeq would ensure positive coverage for Netanyahu in its news subsidiary, Walla. The upshot is that Netanyahu aimed to prolong his time as prime minister and consolidate his generational political dominance. That is much more threatening to Israel’s democracy than more ordinary pay-for-play corruption.

The parallels to the U.S. are obvious. Trump is accused of trying to subvert American democracy through election misconduct. His well-publicized attacks on the news media shouldn’t distract us from the worshipful coverage he receives from Fox News. Trump’s direct attacks on Jeff Bezos for his ownership of the Washington Post show his impulse to personalize media ownership in the hopes of affecting coverage about him. Most troubling is the allegation that Trump ordered subordinates to block the Time Warner-AT&T merger in order to put pressure on CNN.

The only important difference between Trump and Netanyahu on this point is how long they have been in office. Scary though Trump may be for U.S democracy, he can’t serve more than eight years, at least without a constitutional amendment.

Not so Netanyahu. To be clear, I’m not saying that whoever would follow him would be a better prime minister — it’s entirely possible that a successor might come from the hard right. What I am saying is that democracy gets increasingly harder to sustain when one leader has been in power for well over a decade.

Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, needs to keep this in mind when he decides whether to follow the police recommendation and order the prime minister’s indictment. This is not the time for the official charged with legal enforcement to subordinate the rule of law to political considerations. The attorney general’s job should be straight forward in this instance: If the evidence is strong, Netanyahu should be indicted.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.”

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