In 2005, Ariel Sharon decided to pull out of the Gaza Strip. In 2007, Ehud Olmert went to a peace summit in Annapolis. Both were prime ministers under police investigation: Sharon was suspected of having received illegal campaign contributions from an old friend in South Africa and Olmert was being grilled on four different cases, eventually going to prison in what was known as “the Holyland Affair.”
Both prime ministers, with criminal clouds hovering above their heads, chose at one point or another during their term to break Left. Sharon initiated the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and Olmert went to Annapolis to try to revive the peace process and finalize a deal with the Palestinian Authority.
In 2005 and 2007, respectively, the consensus was that both leaders were at least partially motivated by political considerations. Some journalists even confessed to protecting Sharon by not investigating his case – the term used at the time was that they were “treating him like an etrog” – so he could continue to advance his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
When Olmert tried to do the same, it revealed two assumptions – no matter that they are wrong – that politicians have about the press and the justice system.
The first assumption is that the media and the state prosecutor are dominated by the Left. This means – here is the second assumption – that if a prime minister who is under investigation adopts and advances left-wing policies, these lawyers and journalists will back off.
In 2005, ahead of the withdrawal from Gaza, Zvi Hendel, a member of the Knesset with the now defunct right-wing National Union party, coined a phrase (it sounds better in Hebrew) that still resonates today: “The depth of the withdrawal is as the depth of the investigation.”
There are a number of reasons why this thinking is flawed, but the proof is simply that it did not work for Olmert. He sincerely tried to reach a peace deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but was still brought down by the corruption investigations against him.
Nevertheless, these two precedents are important to keep in mind as the criminal investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, gain momentum. What will Netanyahu do? Will he turn Left like his predecessors, or will he move Right?
If he turns Left and suddenly tries to renew peace talks with Abbas after years of dual intransigence, it would be legitimately viewed as a cynical move aimed at trying to save himself from indictment.
Instead, Netanyahu appears to be turning Right to shore up support within his base constituency ahead of an indictment or early elections, whichever comes first.
Politically, this makes sense. If he turned Left, it’s unlikely one of the opposition parties would join his coalition to replace Bayit Yehudi, which would likely bolt over concessions to the Palestinians. Instead, by bolstering his rightwing credentials, Netanyahu is locking Naftali Bennett and Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon into his coalition and ensuring his political survival.
They won’t be able to leave a government that is only becoming more and more right-wing, even if its head is under investigation.
While this is a smart political ploy, it won’t last forever. There are two upcoming points in this investigation timeline where Bennett and Kahlon will have to decide whether they stay in the coalition or bolt.
The first point will be when the police complete its investigation and publicize a recommendation to indict Netanyahu. This was when Olmert announced his intention to resign. If Bennett and Kahlon decide then to wait, their next opportunity will be when and if the attorney-general decides to indict Netanyahu. By this stage, it would anyhow be difficult for them to withstand the public pressure.
What this all means practically is that anything Netanyahu does now will need to be looked at through the prism of the investigations against him. What it also means is that the possibility for real progress on the Palestinian front is out of the question.
This is something that is slowly being digested in the White House, where President Donald Trump came into office in January announcing he was going to invest presidential clout in trying to reach what he called the “ultimate deal.”
The combination of Netanyahu’s investigations with Abbas’s failing health and reports of a succession battle already under way in Ramallah make the chances for real progress slim to none.
Anyhow, it seems the US administration has its hands full these days with North Korea, healthcare and maintaining the presidential Twitter feed.
I do not have sympathy for Al Jazeera. This is a news channel that has been banned throughout the Arab world – in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – for its support of Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as for the role it plays in radicalizing youth and stoking violence. It is a station owned by Qatar, which openly supports Hamas and other terrorist organizations bent on Israel’s destruction.
Nevertheless, I am vigilant when the government decides to interfere in the media. The press in a democracy like Israel’s is meant to be a watchdog and to ensure that the government is held accountable for its actions and decisions. In these pages, you can read daily about the criminal investigations against the prime minister alongside different stories about government ministries and security agencies. That is our job: to portray the news objectively and, when necessary, not to pull punches.
When the government attacks the press though, it is also our job to pay attention, especially after recent events show that the police and IDF don’t fully understand what it means to allow journalists to do their jobs. This was evident most recently in Jerusalem, where police banned reporters and photographers from entering the Old City during the Temple Mount crisis.
This does not mean I don’t understand the desire in Israel to shut Al Jazeera and ban it from broadcasting here. I do. Egypt, for example, blocked Al Jazeera in May, accusing the TV station and website of “supporting terrorism.” If that is how an Arab country refers to an Arab TV station, then why should a Jewish country feel any different?
The problem is that Israel is not Egypt, and, last I checked, does not aspire to have its democracy modeled after the Egyptian system of government. Citing Egypt’s ban of Al Jazeera is not enough of a reason for Israel to do the same.
In addition, it does not yet seem that the government has a made a compelling case against Al Jazeera that would justify and warrant its closure. Communications Minister Ayoub Kara said in a press conference this week that the government had decided to close the station, since it was ludicrous that it was banned in Arab countries and not here. He also said that the station is “causing us to lose the lives of our best sons.”
If that is the case, then the government needs to do a better job at explaining itself. If Al Jazeera is in fact responsible for the loss of life, then Kara should publicize that information so the public can better understand this move, which on the surface appears to an infringement on the freedom of the press.
The Government Press Office said it was consulting Israeli security authorities before making a decision on whether it will revoke Al Jazeera’s press credentials as Kara has requested. This makes sense. The Shin Bet and the Mossad seem to be best suited to evaluate the danger Al Jazeera poses to Israel. If there is danger, then steps should be taken.
Nevertheless, I remain suspicious of the entire campaign. The reason is the timing. The announcement of Israel’s desire to close down Al Jazeera came immediately after Netanyahu caved to Arab pressure and removed the metal detectors from the entrances to the Temple Mount. It is difficult to disconnect the two and not suspect Netanyahu of randomly selecting Al Jazeera as a target to bolster his rightwing support after caving to the Arab world.
Ultimately, the decision will be up to Israel’s security services, and should be based on the cold hard facts. Israel has real enemies and challenges to confront. A TV station, even one backed by the Qataris, shouldn’t be at the top of the list.
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