The past few days in Israel, though, have felt like the last scene in “All the President’s Men,” when a teletype machine hammers out one Watergate revelation after another, as months pass in methamphetamine moments.
Can it only be last week that we Israelis learned that police have recordings of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dickering with Noni Mozes, the publisher-editor of the country’s No. 2 newspaper, over a deal to boost the paper’s profits in return for fawning coverage? And that Netanyahu’s own aide recorded the conversations at his inexplicable request?
Can it be less than a month since the previous scandal broke, the one in which Netanyahu allegedly received more than $100,000 worth of cigars (for himself) and pink champagne (for his wife, Sara) from Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and in return Netanyahu allegedly lobbied Secretary of State John F. Kerry to get a better U.S. visa for his benefactor? It’s all so quick that we’ve nearly forgotten the reports about an Australian billionaire pal pampering Netanyahu’s son Yair — sometimes named as the prime minister’s preferred political heir — with luxury hotel stays and a ski vacation.
In the time it took me to type the previous sentences, my phone screen has lit up with new revelations. I won’t try to keep up.
I should insert the usual qualifications. These are only fragmentary media reports. They’re most likely based on leaks from police and prosecutors disgruntled because the nation’s top law-enforcement figure, a Netanyahu crony, seems to have delayed investigation. Netanyahu has been investigated before and never indicted, much less convicted.
This time, though, he does seem to be in trouble. Much more important, Israel is in trouble. If Netanyahu survives politically, the damage is likely to be all the greater. Israel is being battered by a perfect storm of illiberal democracy.
To understand the newspaper affair, we need a longer timeline. Israel’s largest circulation daily used to be Yediot Ahronot. Netanyahu rails against the media in general, but he has a particular antipathy toward Yediot.
Enter American casino oligarch Sheldon Adelson, bearing his dedication to hard-right Israeli politics. In 2007, in brilliantly invidious evasion of Israel’s strict campaign finance laws, Adelson established his own newspaper, Israel Hayom. It functions as Netanyahu’s very own Pravda. It reportedly hemorrhages millions of dollars annually and is handed out on every street corner for free. It soon surpassed Yediot’s circulation and sliced its profits.
Then, according to the fragments of the Mozes-Netanyahu conversations leaked to the media, the two men discussed a deal in 2014: The prime minister would support a bill to bar giving away newspapers for free. Mozes would alter his coverage to portray the prime minister in a more flattering light. That is, Netanyahu offered the regulatory power of government to enrich Mozes, who offered a tame media in return.
The deal was never consummated. The discussions themselves, however, are likely to constitute a crime. A lot depends on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. The attorney general is the country’s top prosecutor. But Mandelblit was previously Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, a political appointment. He’d be smarter if he recused himself.
Netanyahu’s response this week was that there’s a “media campaign … to bring down the Likud government I head.” The media, in other words, is trying to overcome the will of the voters.
Netanyahu is correct that he was legitimately elected prime minister. But democracy — rather, liberal democracy — means more than holding elections. It requires leaders to be subject to the rule of law. It demands that they conduct themselves as servants of the public, not as monarchs. It depends on a separation between economic power, which is beholden only to shareholders, and political power, which is responsible to voters. And it requires a free press as the foundation of open public debate.
If it turns out that Netanyahu illegally accepted luxurious gifts from businesspeople, with or without a quid pro quo, it will be a familiar form of corruption, itself corrosive enough. It will confirm the impression that Netanyahu regards himself as royalty, owning and enjoying his position by natural right.
The newspaper affair adds another dimension. The creation of Israel Hayom, while perfectly legal, meant that a house organ, backed by a foreign economic force, dominated a small media market. Netanyahu’s bargaining with Mozes — if accurately portrayed so far — suggests that he was willing to use the power of government to mute criticism further and ensure his continued rule. It means that he aspires to be an elected autocrat.
I see two reasons for cautious hope. One is that the reporting of recent days shows that much of the Israeli media is fulfilling its role aggressively, as it should. The other is that a parliamentary system makes it much easier to remove a tainted leader from power than a presidential system. But in a world where illiberal democracy is rising, it’s too early to script a film about this scandal with a relatively happy Hollywood ending.