Israel's own Info Scandal?

Roy Isacowitz writes on the perils of covert political action

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a daily newspaper dedicated to celebrating the achievements of himself, his family and his policies. Called Israel Today, the newspaper was established in 2007, by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a close friend and political supporter of the prime minister. Being a freebie (though Sheldon-supported, not ad-supported), the newspaper has had a profoundly adverse effect on the revenues of the country’s other newspapers, primarily Yediot Ahronot, which previously had the widest circulation in Israel.

As a result of the competition, Yediot Ahronot has taken a strongly anti-Netanyahu line in recent years.

This week, it was reported that the police have a recording of a conversation between Netanyahu and Noni Mozes, publisher of Yediot Ahronot, in which the prime minister offered to relieve the competitive pressure on Mozes’ paper in return for favorable coverage. Quite how he intended to relieve the pressure has not been revealed, but his offer appears to validate what Netanyahu has long denied – that he wields personal influence over his in-house rag.

The newspaper affair doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The British Guardian reported on Sunday that a senior Israeli diplomat in London was also secretly recorded – in his case, while plotting to “take down” British politicians and boasting about pro-Israel groups that he had established in the UK, one of them in cooperation with AIPAC, the Israeli lobby in the US.

Also part of the context is Israel’s Diaspora Ministry, which pumps Israeli taxpayer money into Jewish communities outside Israel, particularly on university campuses, in an effort to spread propaganda about, and secure support for, the policies of the current government. The ministry is headed by Naftali Bennett, the political leader of Israel’s settlers, whose goal is the annexation of the occupied territories to Israel.

Not to mention the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which is tasked with coordinating Israel’s fight against the global Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and has been allocated a large part of the budget that used to go to the Foreign Ministry.

Putting it all together – the newspaper, the hit lists and front organizations, the strategic battle against sanctions – took me back almost 40 years, to when South Africa launched its own covert war against the anti-apartheid boycott movement, with lamentable results. Many of today’s readers may not even be aware of it.

The boycott and sanctions movement against apartheid was still in its diapers in 1972, when the regime decided to act covertly, but proactively, in opposing it. The man chosen to run South Africa’s new dirty tricks program was Eschel Rhoodie, then only 38, who was appointed Secretary of the Department of Information. His boss, minister Connie Mulder, was in on the plan, as were Prime Minister B.J. Vorster and General Hendrik van den Bergh, head of the Bureau of State Security (known to all as BOSS). In fact, the latter two ordered it.

Over the next five years, Rhoodie established a pro-government, English-language newspaper in South Africa, the Citizen, attempted – unsuccessfully – to buy the now-defunct Washington Star (at a reported loss of $11 million,) founded the Group of Ten, influential, international businessmen whose job it was to point out hypocrisy and double standards against South Africa at the UN and in the media, established a number of pro-apartheid think tanks in South Africa and abroad (among them the SA Freedom Foundation,) established ant-boycott organizations, such as the Committee for Fairness in Sport and much, much more. The whole escapade cost South Africa tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars.

The so-called Information Affair began to crumble in 1978, when Rhoodie was fired and the Information Department abolished, amid a swirl of rumors. Details of the dirty tricks emerged slowly in the English-language press over the next year. Rhoodie was sentenced to six years in prison for embezzlement, a conviction that was subsequently overturned by South Africa’s Appeal Court.

The affair also cost Mulder and Vorster their jobs, with the latter resigning in disgrace in 1979 after a commission of inquiry found that that had known about the dirty tricks and tolerated them.

The Israeli government is following the Rhoodie blueprint, if only unwittingly. It already has its own newspaper and appears to have negotiated with another, the largest in the country, for positive coverage. It also has groups of influential foreigners (local Jews, in this case), who regularly berate the UN and the media for their supposed hypocrisy and one-sidedness. And it has at least two ministries organizing and funding efforts to promote current policies and fight sanctions.

What else is going on under the surface is not yet public knowledge. Unlike South Africa, Israel has the advantage of having Israel-supporting Jewish organizations throughout the world which regard being pressed into the service of the current government as a duty, rather than a dirty trick. It would not be at all surprising if dozens of pro-Israel groups around the world are the recipients of Israeli taxpayer money, sometimes breaking national laws in the process. (Many pro-Israel organizations are defined as charities and therefore barred from political activities.)

Interestingly, in overturning Rhoodie’s conviction, the South African Appeal court ruled that the “unconventional” methods he used had been ordered by the South African government and that the money had been legally, if clandestinely, allocated, rather than embezzled. The scandal wasn’t about the wasted money, but about the government’s activities.

What the Information Affair in South Africa showed was the lengths the apartheid regime was prepared to go – including the subversion of both the press and ostensibly independent organizations – for its own political benefit. Israel, it seems, is going down the same path, oblivious to the South African precedent. Israel’s citizens should be warned.