Haim Katz immunity - the end of facts - comment

If the Knesset MKs had looked carefully at the indictment, they would have worried about setting a bad precedent of public servants being able to get away with corruption

MK Haim Katz at this immunity hearing at the Knesset, February 4, 2020 (photo credit: KNESSET PRESS SERVICE/ADINA VALMAN)
MK Haim Katz at this immunity hearing at the Knesset, February 4, 2020
It is unclear if Likud MK Haim Katz is innocent or guilty of the fraud and breach of trust charges brought against him by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit.
Now we will probably never know.
Tuesday night, an ad-hoc Knesset committee granted Katz immunity from prosecution in one of only a few examples of such immunity being granted since 2005.
Absent being overturned by the full Knesset, the High Court of Justice or a future Knesset, Katz will never have to defend his conduct.
There will be no trial. No learned analysis of the facts for and against the charges against Katz. In a very real sense, facts appeared to play almost no role in the Knesset committee decision to grant Katz immunity.
Since the Knesset members of the committee appear to have blocked a careful consideration of the facts, here is at least an opportunity to analyze some of the main factual points which they did not want explored.
According to the indictment against Katz (which now will probably never be filed with any court), Katz violated conflict of interest principles on several occasions in his economic dealings with Equital Ltd.’s Motti Ben-Ari, and covered it up to obtain illegal economic gains for the two of them.
The indictment stated that Katz loudly supported a 2010 reform to the country’s insolvency laws, which was specifically targeted at helping Ben-Ari and his company, in which Katz himself also had heavy investments. This would mean that Katz helped advance legislation to personally benefit himself and his primary financial adviser and close friend.
Katz also allegedly acquired shares based on insider information that he received from Ben-Ari – sometimes in multiple visits per week – in a manner that violates standards for Knesset members, accumulating unlawful wealth.
In addition, it was alleged that Katz did not meet the duty of disclosure regarding his connections with Ben-Ari, both in formal disclosures to authorities and in a hearing he held in the Knesset as a minister, in which Ben-Ari was called to testify.
The first problem with blocking prosecution of Katz in relation to these charges is he admits all or virtually all of the actions attributed to him.
Essentially, his defense before the immunity committee came down to the following points: 1. the law he helped pass was good for the public and not targeted only at helping Ben-Ari; 2. he forgot to disclose his connection to Ben-Ari to authorities and his fellow Knesset members as an oversight, but not intentionally; 3. working to pass the law represented acting in his public servant capacity – which should give him immunity.
When the debate is framed this way, Katz’s arguments seem eminently reasonable. One can understand the fears of his fellow Knesset members which led to their support for his immunity from prosecution.
If the law that was passed was good for the public and also pushed by a special interest, but he received no formal bribe from the special interest, what harm was done?
More importantly for Knesset members, as former justice minister Ayelet Shaked and others said: almost every Knesset law has some special interest campaigning for it who contacts a Knesset MK.
Neither Shaked nor many other Knesset members want to have to reveal every special interest group they spoke to about every law they support or initiate.
Those supporting Katz said that the only relevant question was whether the law was good for the country or not.
If the law was arguably good for the country – Katz’s lawyer said that “the law protects the interests of small investors, protecting them from manipulations that may be initiated by controlling shareholders in companies” – then there should be no prosecution.
From this perspective, Katz merely committed an ethical (non-criminal) error of omitting information about his relationship with Ben-Ari, and maybe even that Knesset members might not want to have to reveal.
All of this could be reasonable if framed that way. Because the debate was framed this way, Katz won the vote.
But there is little relationship between the above Katz show and the cold hard facts.
The cold hard facts are that Katz had a deep, highly specific and systematic financial relationship with Ben-Ari.
This is not a case of any ideological special interest group contacting any MK to support a law because they think it will improve the country.
The picture presented in the indictment shows large corporate money essentially buying the support of a minister and committee chairman. The minister then presented the large money man as a neutral expert, who then swayed the committee members to support a financial scheme to benefit Ben-Ari and Katz.
If settler groups tell Shaked they will support her campaign if she supports conservative judges or tries to thwart laws evicting settlers from the West Bank – that is how politics works and she need not worry to name all of her allies. The same would be true for left-wing groups supporting a Meretz MK.
But if the primary relationship and motivation for a law is corruption and unfair financial gain against the rules that everyone else has to play by – all by cozying up and financially benefiting a public servant – that is at minimum fraud plain and simple.
If Katz had spoken to Ben-Ari once or twice about the law and they only knew each other as well as Katz knows dozens of other special interest groups, then his narrative of an accidental omission might hold water.
But when one reviews the vast volume of interactions, meetings, coordination and financial entanglements between Katz and Ben-Ari, it is crystal clear that he omitted Ben-Ari on purpose so as not to rock the boat.
If he had told his fellow Knesset members about the full extent of their relationship, his fellow Knesset MKs would not have viewed Ben-Ari as a neutral expert, may not have let Katz run the debate and may not have entertained the law at all.
None of this mattered on Tuesday.
All that mattered on Tuesday was how emotional Katz got, making statements over and over again about what an honest man he is, that this process was killing him and that he would not survive a trial.
All that mattered was that Katz succeeded in getting his fellow MKs nervous that they might also find themselves being indicted in the future for similar conduct, because what Katz did was political business as usual.
Maybe Katz does have a defense to explain the depth of financial interactions and coordination with Ben-Ari, but he did not bother to make that defense on Wednesday and no Knesset members asked him to.
If the Knesset MKs had looked carefully at the indictment and spent time discussing its provisions, they would have known that there was nothing about what Katz did that was business as usual and that they did not need to worry about setting a bad precedent that could come after then later.
Rather, they would have worried about setting a bad precedent of public servants being able to get away with corruption as long as they find some part of the public that will also benefit from legislation initiated primarily for corrupt purposes.
Part of what was a stunning disregard for the facts was also the Knesset MKs summary dismissal of Mandelblit, who took the dramatic step of coming to personally make the case.
Although some politicians are trying to paint Mandelblit as having an anti-right agenda, Mandelblit actually did a big favor for Katz (and he and the prosecution have gone after just as many official on the Left as the Right.) He cleared Katz of all of the worst charges against him for bribery – which the police had recommended – in the Israel Aerospace Industries  case.
The IAI case had been the heart of the public discussion for years. Mandelblit ruled that while Katz’s conduct was problematic, analyzing Katz’s intent was a close enough call that he would give him the benefit of the doubt.
In other words, Mandelblit only tried to present to the Knesset the charges which were so hard and clear that he would not risk losing the case.
Those clear-cut charges are what the Knesset committee gave Katz immunity from without even giving a real defense.
Because post Ehud Olmert, Moshe Katsav and other politicians went to jail, we are in an age when facts often no longer matter.
We live in an age where Knesset members, including some on both sides of the aisle, would rather not even see how a court would rule because the risk of knowing the truth is simply too menacing.