Demonization, double standard, and delegitimization: the famous “Three D’s” proposed by Natan Sharansky in 2004 have proven to be a powerful tool to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel, and “new antisemitism,” in which the Jewish state replaces the individual Jew as a target.
What these criteria do is reveal the irrational basis of the exaggerated charges against Israel, and help show how they are part of an emotional propaganda attack aimed at creating a strong antipathy in the listener which is not justified by facts.
These same propaganda techniques can be deployed in other venues for other purposes, such as in an attempt to damage a democratically elected political leader and influence an election. In a situation like this, the Three D’s can help us distinguish between legitimate criticism of policies and behavior – even alleged criminal behavior – and a witch hunt.
Of course I am talking about the witch hunt against PM Binyamin Netanyahu.
The major complaint against Netanyahu today is that he is corrupt, as is charged in the three cases in which the Attorney General has said he will attempt to indict Netanyahu: accepting gifts of cigars and champagne in return for political favors, conspiring to obtain positive coverage from a newspaper in return for suppressing a competitor, and – most damaging – promoting regulatory actions that provided financial benefits for a media mogul in return for positive coverage on a website he controlled.
There are some serious problems for the prosecution in these cases. The first case is both trivial and vague (how many cigars is too many?) In the second, Netanyahu is supposed to have traded support for legislation to ban the free distribution of newspapers – a bill aimed at Israel Hayom – for positive coverage from the publisher of its competitor, Yediot Aharonot. But Netanyahu opposed the legislation, and Yediot didn’t support him anyway. In the third, the website that allegedly provided positive coverage did publish several favorable articles, but overall did not change its slant.
In addition, all three accusations are based to some extent on the testimony of state’s witnesses – people who have been given immunity from prosecution for their own illegal actions in return for their testimony against the Prime Minister. Testify the way we want, they are told, or you will go to jail! Could there be a greater conflict of interest?
But what I find the most egregious is the way the media – with the cooperation of the police and the prosecutor’s office – has been trying Netanyahu in public for at least the last three or four years, in order to demonize and delegitimize him as Prime Minister. Netanyahu has been interrogated by the police at least twelve times for hours at a time in various cases, and each time there were sensational leaks that were gleefully reported on the evening TV news or in the next days’ papers. Naturally, the reports stressed the most incriminating material. As far as I know, no one has been disciplined for these leaks.
There is also evidence of double standards. Arnon Milchan, who gave Netanyahu cigars and champagne was also friends with many other Israeli politicians, including Yair Lapid, one of the principals in the Blue and White party that is Netanyahu’s main rival in the coming election. Lapid also supported legislation that would have benefited Milchan. But he was not investigated.
Further, 43 members of the Knesset – led by MK Eitan Kabel of the Labor Party – voted to ban the free distribution of newspapers, but none of them were investigated.
Politicians everywhere have always tried to trade favors for media coverage. The legal doctrine that treats this as bribery, however, is something new which seems to have been created just for Netanyahu.
Alan Dershowitz argues that interference by law enforcement in the relationship between politicians and media, except in cases of “clear and unambiguous financial corruption” is extremely dangerous to democracy, because almost every contact between them would be open to legal scrutiny. These questions are highly political, and therefore should be decided by the political process – in other words, the voters.
Avi Bell notes that there is a “new understanding of the traditional crimes of bribery and breach of public trust” in which media coverage is equivalent to a monetary payoff. This either implies that there will have to be “police oversight of nearly all interactions between media and public officials,” or it is a one-time application of special rules to Netanyahu – obviously a serious injustice. Either way, it is a “severe crisis in Israel’s democratic governance.” Indeed.
These are not the first allegations against Netanyahu and his family that have been splashed across the media. There was a bribery scandal in connection with the procurement of submarines; it turned out that Netanyahu had no connection with the affair. There was the ludicrous “deposit bottle scandal” in which Sara Netanyahu was accused of keeping the money for bottles that had been returned after their purchase for public functions (she was not charged). She was indicted for misuse of public funds for ordering out for expensive meals when she had a government-paid cook (she is on trial now). There have been lawsuits concerning her alleged ill-treatment of employees and bad temper. And on and on and on.
The Attorney General has announced his intention to hold a hearing on the charges against the PM, after which a formal indictment can be issued. The hearing would take place after the election. The announcement has no other legal significance, but it certainly will affect the vote and the coalition negotiations after the election. It is very unlikely that the timing of this announcement was accidental!
The American Founding Fathers understood that the removal of a chief executive would be highly charged politically, and they created a political method for dealing with malfeasance or criminal behavior in office: impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate. They did not leave it to policemen or lawyers, or even the Supreme Court. This has proven to be the right path, and it’s unfortunate that Israel does not have something similar.
Netanyahu has been Prime Minister since 2009, and his opposition is frustrated to the point of hysteria. They have been unable to defeat him by the normal political processes, so it seems that they have chosen to tie him down with multiple legal threads, as the Lilliputians did to Gulliver, and stone him to death with innuendos. Bibi claims, and I think he is essentially correct in this, that pressure from media and the legal establishment – groups that are largely opposed to him – forced the hand of the Attorney General in deciding to move forward toward indictment.
Just as Israel’s enemies wish to destroy international sympathy for Israel by demonization and delegitimization, Netanyahu’s enemies hope to fracture his political support before the election.
Will they succeed? We’ll find out after the 9th of April.