Democracy Can Also Die in the Bright Glow of the Screen

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Protesters hold signs and flags during a protest against corruption and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv

When the Israeli police recommended this week that Benjamin Netanyahu be tried for bribery, it was like a long-delayed train pulling into the station. We knew it was coming; we were only wondering how long we'd have to wait. True, the police added some details to make you shake your head in disbelief, like the nice round figure of one million shekels (over a quarter million dollars) worth of champagne, cigars, and jewelry that Netanyahu and family allegedly received from a pair of businessmen.

How, you have to wonder, does someone actually consume that many cigars, that many bottles of bubbly? How do you survive that much cigar smoke?

Still, the wholesale supply of luxuries gives an impression of conventional corruption: A powerful official does favors for a rich person—a tax break here, help getting a foreign visa there—so that the politician can live nearly as well as the zillionaires he hangs out with.

This impression of garden-variety corruption is mistaken, though. The police statement, along with reports on another investigation and facts in plain sight suggest that Netanyahu has set out on corrupting the system in much more fundamental way.

He is trying to transform the press from the watchdog of democracy into the lapdog of the regime.

The police recommendations, issued Tuesday evening, dealt with two separate investigations, which have been labeled Case 1000 and Case 2000. Case 1000 dealt with all those cases of champagne and boxes of overpriced cigars. Netanyahu allegedly received most of the goodies from Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. Since 2014, say the police, Australian billionaire James Packer shared the burden of supplying the Netanyahus.

As of yet, there's no allegation that Packer got anything material in return. Milchan is another story. Netanyahu allegedly lobbied then-Secretary of State John Kerry to get Milchan's U.S. visa extended. He tried to rig a tax break for Milchan in Israel that by some estimates could have been worth millions of shekels.

One more thing: The prime minister allegedly intervened in negotiations between Milchan and the Communications Ministry, which regulates television broadcasting. Milchan wanted to buy a piece of Israel's Channel Two TV. A veteran stockholder in the channel reportedly blocked the plan. Were it not for that, Milchan would have ended up with a large chunk of the Israeli broadcast industry.

And Netanyahu would have ended up with his alleged partner in crime holding a share of control over the most-watched television news shows in Israel. For a prime minister who apparently wants to keep running for re-election as long as he lives, fawning coverage is worth even more than cigars.

With Case 2000, you don't have to dig for the media connection. The case is explicitly about newspapers. The most-read paper in Israel used to be Yediot Ahronot, until American gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson created Israel Hayom, which is given away for free. The paper exists not to make money but to promote Bibi Netanyahu. Since people stand at street corners handing it out, it has cut Yediot's readership and profits.

So Netanyahu and Noni Mozes, the publisher-owner of Yediot, entered into a secret negotiation. Their alleged deal was that Netanyahu would find a way to cut Israel Hayom's circulation, and in return Mozes would provide Netanyahu with soft cuddly coverage. One gambit that Netanyahu tried—again, unsuccessfully—was to back a law that would have forced Israel Hayom's publisher to charge for the paper. If it had worked, Netanyahu would have gotten a slightly weakened paper, Israel Hayom, that supported him completely, and a supposedly independent Yediot that also promoted him. The Israeli public would have gotten two competing versions of a Hebrew Pravda.

Meanwhile, another investigation is quietly developing in what's known as Case 4000. (Yes, there's a Case 3000. But let's leave that for now. There's only so much dreck we can slog through in one day.) In that one, Netanyahu is suspected of putting a crony in charge of the Communications Ministry, so that it would do the bidding of the owner of country's main telecomm company, Bezeq. One of Bezeq's subsidiaries is a very popular news website called Walla (approximate translation: “Wow!”).

This time, Netanyahu had more success: Walla has flattered the prime minister and his controversial wife, Sara Netanyahu. The site's CEO reportedly gave regular instructions to make the site Netanyahu-friendly. When big money is riding on good ties with the prime minister, it seems that democracy can die in the bright light of the computer screen.

Besides the criminal cases, there's the matter of Israel Hayom itself. Legally, the newspaper is best described by the Hebrew phrase, “It's kosher but it stinks.” Israel has a campaign-finance law that tightly limits how much an individual can donate, and that entirely bars contributions from non-citizens. So Adelson can't directly give tens of millions of dollars to Netanyahu's election campaigns, as he does for conservative candidates in America.

The newspaper is a way of hacking the law. Israel Hayom shamelessly, blatantly promotes Netanyahu. Its losses are, for practical purposes, an ongoing campaign contribution to Netanyahu. The dilemma is that any attempt to regulate the newspaper would risk impinging on freedom of the press, while letting it operate as it does hollows out the campaign financing law.

 Netanyahu isn't the only politician who complains about how the media covers him. Sometimes a politician has a legitimate case (think about coverage of the Comey letter on the eve of the 2016 U.S. election). Netanyahu's complaints are particularly loud, though, and particularly paranoid in their description of the media as a bunch of leftists trying to depose him.

It's much too early to tell whether Netanyahu will be indicted, much less convicted, in the current cases. Whether or not his actions are criminal, though, a picture is emerging of a compulsive effort to turn as much of the Israeli media as possible into a cheering squad, while maintaining the illusion of a free press.

He has been helped by concentration of media outlets in a few hands, and by the outsized power of global-sized fortunes in a small country that attracts a great deal of foreign attention.

This is way autocracy is built: Elections are held, but the electorate has been robbed of critical information. As a form of corruption, it's much more insidious than cadging high-priced smokes and drinks in return for official favors.

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