The Bribery Trial of Sitting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Poses Unprecedented Challenges

The criminal trial of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, on multiple corruption charges, opened yesterday, only ten days after the formation of a new government, and after years of police investigations, indictment procedures, and three rounds of early general elections. The trial is an unprecedented event in Israel, and one of the few examples anywhere in the world where a sitting head of government has stood trial on criminal charges in his own country. This situation poses unique challenges. On the one hand, the court must ensure that Netanyahu’s rights, as a criminal defendant, are respected. That said, though, some adjustments will have to be made to secure both the fairness of the trial and the integrity of Israeli executive and judicial branches, given that as the trial unfolds, Netanyahu will continue to serve as Prime Minister.

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Guest Post: Coronavirus and the Corruption Outbreak

Today’s guest post is from Sarah Steingrüber, an independent global health expert and Global Health Lead for CurbingCorruption.

It was never a question of if, but when, and now here we are. What’s worse is that we were warned. We are in the midst of a major global pandemic with nations all over the world declaring national emergencies, health systems struggling to cope or bracing themselves for the onslaught, and ordinary people trying to make sense of a barrage of sometimes conflicting information. The World Health Organization and national governments around the world recognize that slowing the spread of the coronavirus (more accurately, the SARS-CoV-2 virus) and helping those who are already suffering—both physically and economically—will require swift and bold action.

Unfortunately, that urgency significantly increases the risk that the response to the coronavirus pandemic will unleash a wave of corruption, one that not only threatens to undermine the effectiveness of the response thus ensuring greater loss of life, but could persist much longer than the outbreak itself, debilitating health systems long term.

In emergency situations, when lives are at stake, it is all too easy to rationalize the subordination of concerns about things like accountability and transparency, and to disregard or ignore any anticorruption infrastructure that may currently be in place. It’s hard to focus on holding leaders accountable when government action is desperately needed to save lives. But ignoring the risks of abuse of power during a crisis would be a grave mistake, and in the context of the current coronavirus pandemic, at least three such risks are especially serious: Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Doron Navot

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, my collaborator Ina Kubbe, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Tel Aviv, interviews Professor Doron Navot, of the University of Haifa political science department. Much of the interview focuses on corruption in Israel, especially the allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and how these allegations have affected Israeli politics and society. The interview also covers broader themes related to corruption in Israel, including widespread “informal” practices that bleed over into illegal exchanges or favoritism. The interview concludes with a discussion about different forms of corruption their relative frequency in Israel, and what can be learned from Israeli anticorruption efforts.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

The Alleged Police Misconduct in the Netanyahu Corruption Investigations Illustrates Why Police Should Err on the Side of Caution

In corruption investigations, witness testimony is often crucial. After all, corrupt acts usually take place in secret, and the parties involved rarely leave behind records documenting their illegal deeds. It should therefore come as no surprise that an essential part of the corruption investigations into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the law enforcement authorities’ attempt to obtain incriminating testimony from those with (allegedly) first-hand knowledge of the corrupt actions, and to turn some of them into “state’s witnesses” (defined by Israeli law as “an accomplice who testifies on behalf of the prosecution after a benefit has been given or promised [to] him [or her],” usually in the form of immunity from prosecution or other alleviations). These efforts have met with some success (see here, here, and here).

However, according to Israeli news outlets whose reporters have gotten access to leaked police transcripts, the Netanyahu investigators may have gone too far. These transcripts suggest that police investigators tried to convince two key witnesses, who themselves were suspected of involvement in the corrupt schemes, to replace their defense attorneys – apparently because these defense attorneys had been advising their clients not to sign a state’s witness agreement (see here and here). (In Israel, defense attorneys are not present in the interrogation room, as suspects do not have a right to have their lawyers present during an interrogation.) One of the witnesses did indeed hire a new attorney and signed a state’s witness agreement, though we can’t be sure if the police investigators’ “suggestion” that he do so was the reason. If the police did pressure these suspects to fire their lawyers, it would be illegal, as Israel’s Supreme Court has held that police may not attempt to interfere with a suspect’s relationship with, or trust in, her attorney. In addition, the transcripts suggest that the police may have illegitimately pressured one of the witnesses during his arrest, threatening that lack of cooperation might result in negative consequences to him and others, and employing highly controversial interrogation tactics (see herehere, and here). At this stage, we do not yet know for sure what actually transpired, and Israel’s Attorney General has ordered that the claims of police misconduct be investigated.

The leaked transcripts and the allegations of severe police misconduct have generally been greeted with wide public criticism that transcended political boundaries. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s supporters and party members, including the Minister of Justice, have (unsurprisingly) been most critical, arguing that the police’s actions offer more proof of Netanyahu’s “persecution” by law enforcement authorities, a claim that has been promoted by Netanyahu almost since the beginning of his investigations (see here and here). Putting that harsh (and unproven) last claim to one side, it’s definitely the case that police investigators have been zealous in their pursuit of Netanyahu and his alleged co-conspirators, and the police may have been, at the very least, pushing the boundaries of what the law allows. This, in my view, is a mistake. To be clear, I do not mean to argue simply that the police should not break the law. That is true, but not many people would claim that the police should disregard the law when fighting corruption. But there’s another view out there, espoused by a considerable number of “tough on corruption” proponents, that law enforcement authorities should “push the envelope” as much as possible, doing everything they can even if their actions are sometimes to be deemed illegal by courts. According to this view, there is no place for softness in the interrogation room, and the police sometimes need to be willing to operate right at the edge of what the law will permit. It is this attitude that I want to argue against.

And this is not only because we should care about the rights of suspects and the fairness of criminal investigations. Indeed, “tough on corruption” proponents ought to worry the most about forms of police aggressiveness that come close to, and may cross, the line into police misconduct. In the Netanyahu case, to stick with that example, the police investigators’ alleged overreach may also prove to be counterproductive to anticorruption efforts, not only putting the investigation in jeopardy but producing long-term adverse consequences for effective anticorruption law enforcement. From the perspective of anticorruption policy, there are a few practical reasons why the police, while investigating allegations of corruption, should fully respect the rights of witnesses, and err on the side of caution: Continue reading

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Flawed and Irrelevant Defense to Bribery Allegations

After three years of investigations, it’s likely that Benjamin Netanyahu will soon become Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be indicted. The indictment, which has already been published by the Attorney General though not yet submitted to the court, accuses Netanyahu of several crimes of corruption. One of the most serious allegations (commonly referred to as “Case 4000”) is that when Netanyahu served as both Prime Minister and the Minister of Communications, he took steps to promote a deregulation of the telecom sector that would greatly benefit Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, one of Israel’s largest telecom firms. In particular, Netanyahu is alleged to have pushed for a decision allowing Bezeq to merge with another Israeli telecom giant. In return, Netanyahu allegedly received favorable media coverage from a news company controlled by Mr. Elovitch during two general elections.

Netanyahu has yet to submit a formal statement of defense to the charges, but given his countless press releases and interviews, it’s easy to predict what he will say. In particular, Netanyahu and his spokespersons have repeatedly argued that “decisions Netanyahu made regarding the telecom giant when he was communications minister were reasonable, had the support of the ministry’s professionals and were approved by the legal gatekeepers” (emphasis added). It’s not clear at this stage whether it is in fact true that the professionals in the Ministry of Communications also supported the merger. But suppose it were true. Why would it matter? Why would this be a defense to the bribery charges? Netanyahu and his supporters have remained vague, perhaps intentionally so, on this point. But there seem to be three possible arguments that he might advance as to why the Ministry professional staff’s (alleged) agreement with his position supplies a defense to the bribery allegation. None of these arguments has merit, and the court should dismiss all of them.

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The Limited Effect of Corruption Allegations on Voters: A Brief Analysis of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Reelection

Last fall, Professor Stephenson alluded to the confusion that many in the anticorruption community feel regarding “voters in many democracies [who] seem to support candidates that are known or reputed to be corrupt.” This confusion was shared by many of my (non-Israeli) colleagues over the last few weeks, upon learning that Benjamin Netanyahu won the April 2019 elections and will serve as Israel’s Prime Minister for a fourth consecutive term (and fifth term overall), despite being suspected of various corruption offenses, including bribery and breach of trust (see here, here, here, and here). (Saying that Netanyahu won the elections is slightly inaccurate in a technical sense, since in Israel voters do not vote directly for the candidate they wish to serve as Prime Minister, but rather for the party they wish to represent them in the parliament (the Knesset). Nonetheless, 26.46% of the voters supported Netanyahu’s Likud party, making it one of the two largest parties in the Knesset; many other voters supported various other right-wing parties that were sure to join Likud to form a government.) Does the fact that so many Israelis cast their ballot in favor of Netanyahu’s party, or other parties sure to back Netanyahu for Prime Minister, mean that Israeli voters simply do not care about corruption?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that there are three main reasons why voters may have chosen to support Likud despite disapproving of corruption:

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Israel Needs to Fight Official Corruption. That Doesn’t Mean It Should Deprive Elected Officials of Their Right to Silence.

On April 9, 2019, millions of Israeli citizens will vote in the national legislative elections for the party they wish to represent them in the parliament (the Knesset). Numerous ongoing investigations into corruption allegations against senior officials and various public figures (including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) ensure that anticorruption will feature prominently on the agendas of most major political parties. One can only hope that the next elected Knesset will manage to pass effective anticorruption legislation. However, one piece of anticorruption legislation that has been repeatedly proposed should not be adopted: a de facto limitation on senior elected officials’ right to silence in criminal interrogations in which the officials are suspects. (The proposed legislation would also de facto limit elected officials’ narrower right of refraining from answering specific questions when doing so may put them at risk of criminal prosecution; for the sake of brevity I will discuss only the broader and more comprehensive right to silence.) Currently, elected officials enjoy the right to silence just like any other suspect in a criminal case in Israel, yet proposals have been repeatedly floated that would require certain high-level elected officials (such as the prime minister, ministers, Knesset members, or mayors) who exercise this right to be removed from office. Most of the bills, which differ from each other in certain respects, would apply to criminal interrogations related to the officials’ duty, but some go even further, with a broader application to any kind of criminal interrogation in which the officials are suspects.

The explicit goals of these bills are strengthening the war on corruption and promoting public trust in the rule of law. So far, none of these bills have been enacted, but Knesset members from across the political spectrum have been flirting with this idea for the last few decades, almost always in response to occasions in which Israeli officials (whose political views typically diverge from those of the proposing Knesset members) chose not to cooperate with the interrogators in corruption investigations. It is very likely that something like this will be proposed again in the next elected Knesset, as some parties have already declared in their official platform that they intend to promote such legislation.

While I agree that an elected official’s refusal to answer interrogators’ questions inspires a great deal of unease, adoption of the aforementioned bills would be unjustified and even dangerous. Although the proposed bills do not technically eliminate elected officials’ right to silence, requiring a public official to give up his or her position as a condition for exercising this right is a sufficiently severe sanction that the bills unquestionably impose a severe practical limitation on this right. If Israel were to adopt such a rule, it would be a significant outlier among peer nations: Research conducted by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center in 2007 found no equivalent limitation on elected officials’ right to silence in numerous legal systems around the world. Taking such a step would therefore be unprecedented, but more importantly, it would be unwise, for several reasons: Continue reading