UPDATE: Apologies to Dvorit Shargel, who broke this story yesterday. She deserves credit for it and kol hakovod la. I’ve updated my post to include references to her excellent research. She’s also helped me correct some errors that crept into previous versions of the post.
Tonight another major breaking story fresh from the Land of Milk, Honey and the Filthy Rich as reported by a confidential authoritative Israeli source. A few days ago, Forbes Israel published a list of the wealthiest members of the Knesset. No sooner was the article published than it picked up mentions at the Mako and Globes financial websites. But those reports quickly disappeared from the web though thanks to the wonder of Google it still lives on here (Shhh!). I’ll unravel this mystery further on.
The wealthiest on the list was deputy prime minister Silvan Shalom, whose wife, Judy Nir Mozes, is a part-owner (12%) of Yediot Achronot. He’s worth over $40-million which, on the scale of your average Knesset member, is gargantuan wealth. Most of his lucre comes from his wife’s family. Her brother manages Yediot and her sister is controlling shareholder in El Al. Others at the top of the list include Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman ($25-million), Defense Minister Ehud Barak (nearly $20-million), Meir Sheetrit ($14-million), and the man himself, Bibi Netanyahu (coming in at a paltry $9-million).
Coming from the U.S. these numbers sound like peanuts, but you’ll have to trust me that this is simply unfathomable riches for an Israeli politician. And of course, it makes you wonder what sorts of deals and under the table arrangements they might’ve made when they were ministers in order to amass such riches, given that Ehud Olmert amassed much of his fortune from similar deals when he was minister of industry.
There are no public disclosure laws in Israel compelling politicians to disclose their personal wealth and list their specific assets so that the public can determine whether they have conflicts of interest in their voting. Hence, Israeli media rarely if ever report this data. That’s what makes the list such political dynamite.
Shalom and his wife went ballistic and immediately called Bibi and threatened that if the prime minister didn’t stop publication, Shalom would vote against an Iran attack in the security cabinet, of which he’s a member and which must approve any proposed attack on Iran. The supreme irony here is that Shalom was willing to sell the souls of the thousands of Iranians who would die from an Israeli attack on behalf of protecting his wealth and privilege from the prying eyes of the Israeli electorate.
In light of the J14 social justice movement‘s popularity in Israel, and its success in bringing issues of income disparity to the fore, Shalom’s back-room maneuvering appears obscene. Israel has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the world (fifth largest among developed nations). Shalom is the 1% but he doesn’t want the other 99% to know. For shame.
If this story had a national security angle, Shalom could’ve expected the military censor would suppress it. But given that it doesn’t, he had to resort to naked extortion to get his way. To help conceal the far more damaging story that Bibi had threatened to pull the broadcast licenses of an media outlet that published the story, Shalom told his lawyer to draft a letter to the media outlets threatening them with libel suits up the yazoo if they didn’t cease and desist coverage of the story. That makes it a far more devious conspiracy by which the government allowed the media to say they couldn’t publish because of threat of a lawsuit, when the real reason they couldn’t do so was threat of revocation of their licenses.
Here’s some of the hot-air of Shalom’s lawyer:
Lies without foundation. falsehoods, perversions of truth at the very least, and libel against my client and his spouse, contrary to the law and the prohibition against slander.
The threat clearly was full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. The article could in no way be construed as slander and the fact that the numbers are true was a perfect defense against the libel charge. If there had only been this legal threat, some of the media might have been willing to defy it and publish. But along with the regulatory threat, no one was willing to brave Shalom’s fury (and that of the others named, who cannot have been very happy either).
A small diversion: according to Dvorit, Judy Nir Mozes told a real sob story to the Israeli financial paper, The Marker, claiming that she really wasn’t rich at all and that her wealth was solely on paper. Sounds like a story she uses frequently to downplay her power and status. She further amplified her husband’s concern for the poor and downtrodden youth of Israel in this self-serving tweet (subsequently deleted):
Four years ago, Silvan founded the Israeli Youth Gathering. As someone who worked four jobs, completed four university degrees, lived in rental apartments until he took to wife a well-established bride. For this reason, he has never ceased trying to improve the living conditions of Israeli youth regarding housing, jobs and military service.
This, by the way, is the same Nir Mozes who tried to get Danny Ayalon’s personal secretary fired when he was ambassador to the U.S., because the woman hadn’t arranged a meeting for the imperious Israeli with Madonna when she traveled to Israel for one of her Kabbalah retreats. Then she had Ayalon’s wife investigated because she spent state funds to re-decorate her home. All this from a woman worth nearly $40 million according to Forbes Israel. I don’t know if that will bring me under suspicion as well for the crime of slander. But if publishing the wealth of a public figure is libel, then what kind of country is Israel, where the law is used by the rich and powerful to suppress knowledge and public debate among the populace?
Bibi got Shalom’s message too. He’d been lobbying hard recently among his cabinet for approval for such an attack. He needed Shalom’s vote. Hence, word went forth from the prime minister’s office to the Israeli media that anyone who dared to publish the list would “end up like Channel 10.” That’s a TV station which owes the government millions in licensing fees, which it can’t pay. Bibi has been supremely unhappy with some investigative reports of the channel’s news staff, including one that exposed 30 instances of serious violations of Knesset ethics laws in Bibi’s foreign travels. Unless Channel 10 fired the reporter responsible for the report, Bibi let it be known that the debts would not be forgiven and it would lose its license in months. If it fired Drucker, the government would go easy and the debts would miraculously disappear.
An Israeli reporter told me a few hours ago that in fact, Bibi has already decided to cancel Channel 10’s license. Everyone in the Israeli media knows this. Therefore, a threat by Bibi to do them what he did to Channel 10 would resonate strongly. Some readers have criticized this theory on the grounds that there would be no legal basis to deny a license. But given the history of Channel 10 and its imminent demise, Bibi wouldn’t need a real legal basis to attack a broadcast license. Merely the threat to do might be enough to make a media outlet cave. This reminds me more of the Godfather or naked loansharking than a democratic government. But in Bibiworld, that’s how things are done.
I’m sorry to say that so far no Israeli media outlet has been willing to jeopardize itself and report the full story. Which is yet another reason why Tikun Olam exists (remember that Paypal button, folks). We go where few Israeli reporters can, or dare to tread. I say this more out of sorrow than criticism, because there are many honorable journalists there. I know this because some of them have published remarkably fair profiles of my work.
But I also understand that when a Mafiosi character like Bibi has you by the balls, what can you do? You have to weigh what is more important–retaining your ability to exist as a viable media property, or standing up for press freedom and democracy by doing the bold thing and in the process losing your newspaper or TV station. There are few, if any, Uri Avnerys (who was almost beaten to death by veterans of the Kibya massacre, which he’d exposed) or Hadashots in Israeli journalism today, who are willing to stake their newspaper on a principle. I suppose the investments are simply too big to risk on such high ethical standards.
Those who call Israel a democracy need to know that it is in name only. Press freedom is only skin deep. This is the case not because reporters aren’t doing their jobs, but because the people don’t demand accountability from their politicians, because editors cave in to such extortionate demands from them, and because the courts do not rein in such violations, and because there is no Bill of Rights nor constitution to inscribe such rights into law.
You even have the exceedingly odd case of one media outlet, Channel 10, partly owned by Ronald Lauder, exposing the sins of the owner of another, Sheldon Adelson of Yisrael HaYom. Adleson, with the connivance of Lauder, dictated Channel 10’s apology which was read on air by a station staff member, thus causing the resignation of the station’s chief executive and producer of the show which aired the expose. In this day and age, there simply couldn’t be an Israeli version of the Pentagon Papers. Things are too cozy among owners and pols, and principles like freedom of the press are too porous.