OPINION: COUP:

by Patrick Goodenough

How pro-Oslo forces in the Israeli police, media and opposition tried to bring down an elected premier.

EVEN before it was known whether or not allegations of wrongdoing would lead to criminal charges against Binyamin Netanyahu, it was obvious that he was the target of an energetic campaign by opponents to unseat a prime minister who seriously threatened their left-wing agenda.

The role of anti-Netanyahu elements within the police force has been particularly damaging. Throughout the corruption scandal dubbed the "Bar-On affair", well-timed leaks by police officers cast an ever-growing shadow over Netanyahu.

The leaks culminated in the passing to Israel's two rival television channels, just minutes before prime-time news broadcasts on April 16, of the information that police investigators recommended that Netanyahu be charged with fraud and breach of trust.

Some commentators believed those responsible for the leak were trying to manipulate the judicial process by placing pressure on the prosecuting authorities, who had yet to decide whether or not to hand down indictments. If Netanyahu's position was made precarious by the police report, they said, he was in even deeper trouble as a result of the leak.

Members of the Likud and other parties to the right of Israel's political spectrum have accused pro-Labour and pro-Oslo police officers of following a hidden agenda.

One of them, Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan was also recently the subject of a police investigation. It resulted in criminal charges which were, however, quickly thrown out in court.

"Anything which comes out of the police must be treated very carefully and with huge grains of salt," he told The Jerusalem Post, "and particularly those leaks which are not done innocently.

"In my own case only hours before I was unequivocally cleared by the court, the police continued relentlessly to leak against me," he said. "I was told that they were instructed to keep interrogating me even if it were patently obvious that there was nothing of substance there. It is time these things were said. I had kept silent for too long." (April 17).

Netanyahu's press advisor, Rami Sadan, also criticised the police. "How is it," he asked, "that police investigators, who signed declarations of secrecy and promised not to divulge details that have bearing on the people they are investigating, violate their own professional ethics by leaking and publicising all sorts of information?"

Bentzi Lieberman of the judicial organisation B'Tzedek accused police of employing double standards, arguing that they had behaved very differently in past cases of alleged corruption involving Labour figures.

THE police force hasn't been the only source of anti-Netanyahu activity. Since his election last May, Netanyahu has faced a constant barrage of personal and political attacks from what has become a keenly "disloyal" opposition, primarily driven by anger at his cautious handling of negotiations with the Palestinians. Although Likud prime ministers were long involved in the search for peace with Israel's Arab neighbours (Camp David, the Madrid peace conference), the Oslo "breakthrough" was seen very much as a Labour achievement; the loss of power to the Likud at a critical stage of the Oslo process hit its Labour architects hard.

Labour leader Shimon Peres has regularly accused the prime minister in foreign media interviews of destroying the peace process while studiously avoiding taking PLO chairman Yasser Arafat to task for the many violations of Oslo.

When the outside world sat up and took notice of this vilification, and began to join the growing anti-Netanyahu chorus, Labour representatives pointed to the censure as evidence of Israel's renewed isolation making no attempt to acknowledge that they were in no small measure to blame for that very state of affairs because of their criticism.

With this track-record, it was hardly surprising, then, that Peres who was flirting with the prospect of joining a national unity government which could prolong his dying political career quickly and publicly changed his mind when the Bar-On bombshell struck.

It is instructive to note that Peres announced this reversal hours before news broke of the police recommendation that Netanyahu be indicted suggesting, some would say, that he had prior knowledge of the police decision.

Peres and other Labourites, including party leadership contender, Ehud Barak, have since then led calls for him to resign.

Israel's largely left-leaning media seized the Bar-On story with unbridled glee, enthusiastically doing their bit to defame and bring down Netanyahu.

Michael Widlanski, who lectures in political science and journalism at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, was one of a number of analysts deeply critical of the media's handling of the story.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post (April 18), he not only questioned the professional standards of the reporter concerned, but also slated the country's media in general.

Why, he asked, had journalists put so little effort over the years into investigating scandals which tainted Labour politicians?

"Reporters, investigators, and prosecutors are all human, and they can sometimes confuse their roles," Widlanski wrote. "But they should not be auditioning for the starring role.

"All reporters, prosecutors and investigators want to make the big case, break open the big story. What could be better than an Israeli Watergate?

"The problem is we already have had many Watergates here, and reporters never started digging."

"One gets the impression," Widlanski concluded, "that the Israeli media ... would rather chase some stories than others."

And the best story in town, quite clearly, is the one which will deal the coup de grace to Binyamin Netanyahu.

(Patrick Goodenough)

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