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Israeli Democracy Gags

For nearly a week, the Israeli Prime Minister’s office has been shrouded in scandal–a scandal so major, we’ve been told, that it will probably be the scandal that forces the scandal-ridden Israeli Prime Minister from office. What exactly happened? Nobody really knows and, thus far, only the New York Post has uncovered any substantive details. Yesterday, the Post reported that Olmert had received money from Long Island millionaire Morris Talansky during his term as mayor of Jerusalem. How much money? What was the purpose of this payoff? Again, nobody knows.

This dearth of information is the consequence of a stringent Israeli gag order. Indeed, even while references to the Post‘s fine investigative journalism have abounded, the Israeli media has been completely prevented from mentioning Talansky’s name. (One station, Keshet TV, went as far as blurring the text in a photo it provided of the Post‘s web-based scandal coverage.) Of course, when it comes to protecting national security-relevant information–as in the case of Israel’s bombing of an alleged Syrian nuclear facility last September–these blackouts are par for the course in Israel. But corruption in high government offices is not a national security issue–it is a political one, and withholding vital information from the public disturbingly undermines Israel’s democratic processes.

Yet the gag order exposes far more than the limits of civil liberties in Israel. Rather, it demonstrates the alarming extent to which Israel’s political culture, quite literally, stands on ceremony. Indeed, the police have argued that lifting the gag order on Israel’s day of mourning for its fallen soldiers–today–would “harm the public interest.” Moreover, as the gag order currently extends through May 11th, it appears as though its ultimate goal is to keep Olmert in power at least until Israel’s 60th birthday celebration passes a few days later. After all, the government has long planned this event–which will be attended by President Bush, among other foreign leaders and luminaries–as a showcase of Israel’s political, economic, artistic, and scientific achievements, and it seems determined to not let Olmert’s corruption, no matter how extensive, interfere.

One thus has to wonder: does Israel’s national security establishment believe that the Jewish state’s international standing is so tenuous that protecting an A-list birthday party warrants such profound limitations on free speech?


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