I reported here last year on one of the greatest stories never told in the Israeli media: that education minister Gideon Saar had sex in a Tel Aviv club with an underage girl; that all the Israeli reporters knew this and that none could report it. Though this blog gets the discreet attention of the military censor and other intelligence officials, reports here aren’t strong enough evidence for Israeli police to commence an investigation. No one followed up on this story and Saar emerged unscathed.
Now a new scandal is brewing thanks to a brave Haaretz reporter, Yossi Klein. He wrote a story today, What You Won’t Read in the Papers (censored version). The report is one of those breathless intrigue-filled exposes which allude to far more than they expose. He writes about threats and assignations in dark hotel bathrooms, money passing hands, and much more:
Last week, I met veteran journalists and heard stories about politicians. Lewd stories of the sort I haven’t heard in a very long while. Urges, threats, bathroom stalls in dark night clubs…
I’ve never thought politicians were angels. But I never believed they’d endanger their career and position. I erred. It seems that something happens to men with power. It blinds them. Their blood goes straight to their nether region and makes them believe something bursts forth there that simply can’t be refused. It also goes right to their pocket as well: we’ve heard of envelopes passing from hand to hand and insiders bounced from job to job.
When I first read the previous paragraph I thought Klein was claiming Saar had bribed people to maintain silence about his dalliances. But the reporter may be referring to other politicians who’ve done this in similar circumstances.
Klein moves into a tutorial on the moral and social responsibilities of journalists to report what they know about such scandals given the right to privacy of even public officials. But there are times, he says, when rumors have a solid basis and the public has a clear interest in knowing the information. But reporters still can’t report such news, at least not in Israel. Why? Ah, now that’s complicated. We’ll try to explain:
I’d like to believe that a minister comes to his office with a clean mind. The calculations of the drunken minister are different from those of one who is sober. The calculations of a minister who’s a sexual harasser are different from those of one who has self-restraint. A minister who’s a traffic offender can’t preach good driving and a finance minister who’s an embezzler can’t demand austerity.
Why do journalists only talk and not publish? They don’t publish because news that’s passed the test of credibility and legality still must pass another test. Not a simple test. All the stories I heard this past week failed it. The test is set up at the end of the hall in the office of the publisher. It’s a test of connections, because connections for a publisher are a supreme value.
The map of connections between a publisher and the powerful is many-branched. Ties of friendship between them go above and beyond age or party. Love blossoms: Sheldon loves Bibi and Nimrodi loved Katsav. Mozes at Yediot loves Olmert and Lieberman. How does a journalist know about whom he can level criticism? Mozes went to kindergarten with Olmert? Served with Lieberman during army service? Such ties are reflected in the newspaper from front to back. There is no journalist who hasn’t heard and doesn’t know. You don’t write about friends [of the publisher].
The following paragraph was the censored one (paragraphs following the first one were not censored):
Most friendly of all is the education minister, Gideon Saar. His ties are wide and deep. He’s a friend of Yediot and Maariv and right at home with Yisrael HaYom. You can’t write a nasty word about him because journalists respect those their bosses love. The education minister can do whatever it comes into his head to do and but criticism can only be offered to a limited extent.
Journalists love too. They’re drawn to the powerful. They call this “cultivating the source.” In the best of circumstances, the source offers vital information and the journalist arranges protection from negative publicity. In the worst circumstances, the source appoints the journalist to be his advisor, arranges a private car for him, an office and secretary.
Journalists must report what people try to hide. The assumption that the public deserves to know what they’re trying to hide from it deserves reconsideration. The public has a right to know. But doesn’t have the will to make this right real.
The director of the prime minister’s office harassed a female staffer and resigned. Now he continues to pull the strings, but from another room. And no one’s terribly upset. This story we did read in the papers.
Several Israeli media watchdogs including Dvorit Shargel and Oren Persico noticed that in the online version all references to Saar were excised. My Israeli source tells me that Saar’s lawyers threatened Haaretz with a major lawsuit unless the editors dropped their client’s name from the story, which they dutifully did. But the cat’s out of the bag since they couldn’t destroy all the papers they’d published, which name Saar.
There’s good news and bad news in this report aside from the story itself and its subjects. The good news is that there are enterprising Israeli journalists willing to speak truth to power regardless of the impact it may have on their careers. The very bad news is that in the current political climate of fear and intimidation against the Israeli media, Haaretz’s publisher decided to censor this report because he didn’t want to risk a lawsuit from Saar’s litigious side.
Interestingly, last month Saar’s wife of 22 years demanded a separation and Saar is now living in a rented Tel Aviv apartment. The Israeli gossip columns have written breathlessly about this new desirable bachelor on the market, without explaining why he was tossed out of his home by his wife. So go the gossip rags.
Rumors have swirled for a long time about Saar having affairs with other women. One of the most notable partners named has been Labor’s leader, Shelly Yachimovich. Since Klein, in his article makes reference to powerful politicians and their alliances crossing party lines, it’s sensible to infer that the reporter might be alluding to such an affair between the two. The other interesting aspect of timing for this story is that Israel’s election campaign has just begun to heat up. Labor is a hot political property right now. It doesn’t yet threaten Likud’s dominance, but Yachimovich is a bright star in the election firmament. She has no obvious scandals or corruption hanging over her head as all other prominent Israeli politicians do. In other words, it’s terribly opportune to smear Yachimovich at this point in the electoral process in order to cut her and her party down to size.
Another bomb shell announced today is that Netanyahu’s Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu are merging. My Israeli source tells me that this plan announced today wasn’t scheduled for release at all. It was supposed to be held back till later in the campaign in order to build a sense of drama. But Netanyahu thought the Saar story could become huge, distract from the campaign and hurt Likud’s prospects. So he announced news of the merger in order to take the wind out of the sails of the Saar scandal.
Saar is a rising star in the Israeli political scene. As Klein’s article makes clear, he is beloved by editors and reporters alike. He has relationships that cross party lines. He is a powerful figure and has commanding stature. Not to mention that he plays a sensitive role in political discourse as education minister. He guides the education of Israel’s youth. He determines what students learn about Israeli history and how they form their Jewish (or Palestinian) identity. As such, his role involves setting a moral example. This story threatens to destroy whatever credibility he has established as a model for young people. Imagine a sexual predator and serial adulterer determining the educational and moral standards for the young people of the nation.
Saar has also made a pact with the devil in the form of Im Tirzu, the neo-fascist youth movement undertaking a campaign against academic freedom in Israel. The group, allied with Saar has smeared the political science department at Ben Gurion University and threatened it with closure due to supposed anti-Zionist tendencies among the faculty. They have done the same with other universities and departments though they haven’t succeeded nearly as well elsewhere. Noted Israeli political blogger and Ben Gurion faculty member, Idan Landau, calls him the worst education minister in the history of Israel.
Though it should be said that Israeli politicians are so universally embroiled in scandals, whether financial or sexual, that the public are entirely jaded by such stories. Unless the subject is indicted or convicted, people barely notice. So it will take more exposure and reporting on this story before Israel will give this the attention it truly deserves.
Will Gideon Saar weather this storm? I’m afraid he might with the network of relationships and enablers he’s cultivated in politics and the media. But I hope he will get what he deserves.