Analysis from Israel

Note: Two days after this article was published, Netanyahu was formally named as a suspect in another case, known as the Bezeq case. The police recommendations discussed in this article do not relate to that case.

Recent polls show that if Israel held elections today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party would likely win again, despite police recommendations that he be indicted on six counts of taking bribes. In fact, he’s now polling better than he was before the recommendation was released: Fewer people think he should resign, and more say they would vote Likud. That improvement reveals something important: To many Israelis, the crimes that police are currently accusing Netanyahu of committing just don’t sound all that serious.

Israelis have long known that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are hedonists who prefer other people to pay for their pleasures. Consequently, the revelation that businessmen were plying them with enormous quantities of expensive cigars and champagne wasn’t actually news. And while most Israelis find this conduct repulsive, it’s a price many are willing to pay as long as they feel that Netanyahu is generally doing well by the country, which he is: Even his enemies admit that he has presided over a booming economy, low levels of terrorism and burgeoning relationships with countries around the world.

The real question—the one the polling data hinged on—was what Netanyahu was doing in return for those gifts, and to what degree it harmed the country. So far, the answer seems to be “not much.” Indeed, the quid pro quos detailed in the police report were actually less serious than prior leaks had led the public to expect. While space precludes examining all six allegations in depth, three should suffice to give the flavor.

Let’s start with my personal favorite among the benefits Netanyahu allegedly gave Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan: forming a task force to study Milchan’s proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian free trade zone where one of India’s leading businessmen, Ratan Tata, would produce Tata cars. True, Milchan might have benefited financially had the project actually gone forward (which it didn’t) since he and Tata proposed running the zone in partnership. But anyone familiar with Netanyahu’s foreign policy knows that he has long promoted “economic peace” with the Palestinians as a substitute for the diplomatic peace that currently remains impossible, and that he accords high priority to improving relations with India.

Consequently, it’s fatuous to think he would have to be bribed to consider a proposal that could improve the Palestinian economy while bringing one of India’s largest companies to Israel; it’s the kind of idea that would naturally appeal to him. And even if, as police claim, defense officials disliked the idea, it’s not a crime for prime ministers to have policy disagreements with defense officials. So this charge simply doesn’t hold water.

Another alleged quid pro quo was helping Milchan secure a long-term American visa. But this is the kind of help governments often give leading businessmen, especially if the businessman in question appears to be having visa problems mainly because of his past assistance to the country’s security services. Nor is this something that harms ordinary Israelis in any way. Thus, it’s not something they really care about.

Then there’s the claim that Netanyahu took steps that benefited Milchan in his role as part-owner of Channel 10 television. That’s unarguably true, and it also unarguably cost the Israeli taxpayer money. Channel 10 has serially defaulted on its financial obligations to the government as stipulated in its broadcasting license, yet the government has repeatedly changed the rules to let it stay on the air. But Netanyahu allegedly went even further by helping Milchan find a buyer for his shares when he sought to reduce his stake in this financial sinkhole, and that is the focus of the police recommendation.

Yet it’s far from obvious that Netanyahu’s conduct in this case was motivated by bribery. First, governments have been bending the rules in order to save Channel 10 since before Netanyahu took office and before Milchan acquired his stake. This looks a lot like just one more rule-bending rescue effort: The man who bought Milchan’s shares didn’t just put money in Milchan’s pocket; he also bought shares from other people to acquire a controlling stake in the cash-strapped channel, then injected desperately needed capital into it, thereby saving it from financial collapse.

Second, Netanyahu had previously threatened more than once to rescind Channel 10’s license due to its serial defaults and sell the frequency to new owners who might honor their financial commitments. Each time, however, he backed down after the entire media—joined by the entire opposition—accused him of seeking to destroy freedom of the press by shutting down a media outlet openly critical of him. A similar threat and a similar media outcry preceded the Milchan buyout. So did Netanyahu really save Channel 10 to help his good friend Milchan, or was he simply cowed into doing so, for the umpteenth time, by a media campaign falsely claiming that letting a bankrupt channel fold would be “anti-democratic”?

It’s important to note that two cases still under investigation seem much more serious than the six on which police have so far recommended charges. One involves corruption in the purchase of naval vessels. The other involves multimillion-dollar benefits to Israel’s landline telephone monopoly, Bezeq, including killing a reform that would have significantly reduced landline rates for all Israelis, in exchange for favorable coverage of Netanyahu by an Internet news site Bezeq owns. As of this writing, Netanyahu isn’t officially a suspect in either case, but at least in the Bezeq case, he seems almost certain to become one. And should police recommend charging him in either of these, public opinion would likely turn far more sharply against him.

Still, the recommendations police have released so far don’t tell the public anything it didn’t already know: Netanyahu likes living the high life at other people’s expense. Unless police produce evidence that such luxuries were actually coming at the country’s expense, many Netanyahu supporters will continue believing his outstanding performance as prime minister outweighs his shoddy personal conduct.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on February 27, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

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‘We need to talk’ about the role of non-Orthodox movements

The Jewish Federations of North America are holding their annual General Assembly this week under the title “We Need to Talk,” with “we” meaning Israel and the Diaspora. In that spirit, let’s talk about one crucial difference between the two communities: the role of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. In America, these movements are important to maintaining Jewish identity, something Israelis often fail to understand. But in Israel, they are unnecessary to maintaining Jewish identity—something American Jews frequently fail to understand.

A 2013 Pew Research poll found that by every possible measure of Jewish identity, American Jews who define themselves as being “of no religion” score significantly worse than those who define themselves as Reform or Conservative Jews. For instance, 67 percent of “Jews of no religion” raise their children “not Jewish,” compared to just 10 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews. Only 13 percent give their children any formal or informal Jewish education (day school, Hebrew school, summer camp, etc.), compared to 77 percent of Conservative Jews and 48 percent of Reform Jews. The intermarriage rate for “Jews of no religion” is 79 percent, compared to 50 and 27 percent, respectively, among Reform and Conservative Jews.

Indeed, 54 percent of “Jews of no religion” say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, compared to just 14 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews, while 55 percent feel little or no attachment to Israel, compared to 29 percent of Reform Jews and 12 percent of Conservative Jews. And only 10 percent care about being part of a Jewish community, compared to 25 and 40 percent, respectively, of Reform and Conservative Jews.

Granted, the non-Orthodox movements haven’t done very well at transmitting Jewish identity to subsequent generations; Orthodoxy is the only one of the three major denominations where the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds isn’t significantly lower than the percentage of people over 50. Nevertheless, these movements do vastly better than “Jews no religion,” which, for most non-Orthodox Jews, is the most likely alternative. Not surprisingly, any Jewish identity is better than none.

Yet the picture is very different among secular Israeli Jews, the closest Israeli equivalent to “Jews of no religion.” The vast majority marry other Jews, if only because most of the people they know are Jewish. Almost all raise their children Jewish because that’s the norm in their society (fertility rates are also significantly higher). More than 80 percent consider their Jewish identity important. Most obviously care about Israel, since they live there. And because they live there, they belong to the world’s largest Jewish community, whether they want to or not.

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