This Netanyahu Corruption Case Is the Gravest Threat to Israel’s Democracy
Tuesday 12/February/2019 - 10:33 AM
Haaretz - By Guy Rolnik، Ido Baum and Nati Tucker
If an indictment is filed in the coming weeks against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu، it won’t be the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has become embroiled in criminal proceedings. Just a year and a half ago، former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was released after serving 16 months in jail on graft convictions (his original sentence was reduced by one-third). The prime minister before him، Ariel Sharon، fell into a coma just as evidence against him was being consolidated on an equally serious charge، relating to the transfer of millions of dollars to his sons’ bank accounts.
But the charges that could be brought in Case 2000 and Case 4000 will be unprecedented in Israel: This time the objective was not cash، jobs or gifts، but rather favorable press coverage، perhaps combined with hostile coverage of rival media outlets.
The substantial and wide-ranging evidence in Case 4000 (the so-called Bezeq-Walla case)، plus the fact that there are two state’s witnesses in that case، have reportedly led top officials in the State Prosecutor’s Office to agree that charges must be filed. The case involves allegations that Netanyahu sought to wield influence over regulators on behalf of Israel's largest telecom company in exchange for biased coverage on the Walla news site. In Case 2000، however، there is no such consensus in the Justice Ministry.
Of the cases pending against Netanyahu، Case 2000 – the affair involving a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between him and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon "Noni" Mozes، in which the prime minister allegedly wanted to weaken the rival Israel Hayom paper in return for favorable coverage in Mozes’ paper – poses the greatest harm to the public interest. Therefore، this case is precedent-setting.
Without diminishing the seriousness of the suspicions in the other cases، with Case 2000 the attorney general has been given the opportunity and the responsibility to thoroughly uproot the ingrained institutionalized corruption underlying media-politics relations in Israel. Of all the cases involving the prime minister، this one is the game-changer.
Not so long ago، the power of the press in Israel was concentrated to an extreme degree in the hands of a single newspaper. Yedioth Ahronoth – the print version and to an even greater extent its online Ynet version – had vast circulation and tremendous influence over the country’s agenda، particularly in the political sphere. The power of the printed paper was dramatically eroded over the last decade after the rival Israel Hayom entered the market، but the Ynet site still enjoys enormous public influence. More than one million people are estimated to view the site or the app daily – percentage-wise، an extraordinarily large proportion of consumers for a single website in a Western democracy.
Clearly، given the influence of the press in general and the predominance of the Yedioth Ahronoth Group، the type of coverage any politician، regulator or public figure in Israel receives from the group can have major consequences. Biased press coverage can be manifested in a number of ways، some visible، some hidden:
1. Ignoring or giving scant attention to the activity of a politician or public figure – this phenomenon is usually hidden from most readers;
2. Offering positive or negative coverage – here، there is a wide range of possibilities: featuring positive or negative content; using headlines and subheads to frame the person's activity; selecting certain images; placing the pieces in prominent or less prominent places in the paper. While the positive or negative nature of articles is fairly obvious to the reader، the way they are framed can be less transparent to the non-professional eye and to anyone who has not observed or compared coverage over a span of time;
3.Positive or negative press about the politician’s rival – similar to the above.
4.Gathering negative information about the politician، regulatory official or public figure – with no intention to publish، but rather to use as deterrence – or، by contrast، shelving information and articles that could hurt decision-makers and other figures who are close to the publisher or his editors.
Over the past 20 years، evidence has been gathered from editors and reporters at Yedioth about “blacklists” and “whitelists” of people that publisher Noni Mozes and his editors allegedly marked as individuals who needed to be promoted or harmed، and about investigations that were shelved.
Despite a colossal accumulation of evidence pointing to biased press coverage supporting the interests of the publisher، his associates and editors – the power and strength of the Yedioth Ahronoth Group allowed it to continue operating this way، to continue corrupting the public domain and shaping the picture of reality for millions of Israelis.
And then came Case 2000. For the first time، the public was made aware of a smoking gun: It was given a rare glimpse into Mozes’ method of running Yedioth and determining the coverage it gives، and especially into the kind language، style and culture he demonstrated as the editor responsible for the most important website in the country. The transcripts paint Mozes not as a publisher، editor or journalist، but as someone running a protection organization: a sort of mafia that offers its services to those in positions of power – in this case، the prime minister.
The State Prosecutor’s Office has so far declined to publicize the full transcripts of the conversations between Netanyahu and Mozes. This decision is justified for as long as the investigation is continuing and testimony is being collected، but not at this point in time، when those under investigation already have all the information possessed by the law enforcement authorities.
The public، meanwhile، has a tremendous، almost unprecedented interest in seeing all the relevant transcripts and hearing the full recordings of the prime minister’s conversations with arguably the most powerful man in the media – and possibly in the private sector as well – during the past 30 years.
Naturally، most of the public attention in Case 2000 has been focused on the prime minister. But in many ways، the more significant part of the story is Mozes himself. Israeli prime ministers have always had to contend with a clearly defined opposition with resources and power. Mozes، on the other hand، has never had to face a real public test.
His enormous power has had a chilling effect unmatched by any other public figure in the country. Even today، two years after revelation of the transcripts، you can count on one hand the number of politicians who have been willing to criticize the kind of journalism that came to light in this affair. Of the 120 Knesset members، the vast majority cower before Mozes and his methods.
The paralyzing fear of Mozes showed its effect not just during the final stages of the investigation، ahead of the filing of charges، but also in the initial phases of it. Haaretz investigative reporter Gidi Weitz discovered that the transcripts of the conversations with Mozes “sat” in the safe Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan for seven months before the investigation began. At best، such conduct raises serious doubts about their judgment.
Anyone who reads the transcripts of the investigation can immediately see that there is tremendous value in revealing them to the public and in conducting a thorough، in-depth investigation by the Israel Police. It’s hard to conceive of any other evidentiary material that illuminates a dark corner in the foundations of Israeli democracy in such disturbing fashion.
And Case 2000 also has major economic implications. The value of the return that Noni Mozes was supposed to receive – or possibly received، in part – from Benjamin Netanyahu is estimated at hundreds of millions of shekels. If Israel Hayom had been compelled to switch to a payment model، its circulation would have declined precipitously and it would have lost about 100 million shekels (about $27.4 million) a year in advertising revenue. This amount of government advertising funds would likely have been diverted to Yedioth Ahronoth.
Another possibility that Mozes and Netanyahu discussed was a softened version of the “Israel Hayom law” that would limit the number of advertisements that could appear in such a free newspaper، in order to halt plummeting advertising rates. Such a scenario could have yielded Mozes 25 million shekels a year. The two also discussed diverting 10 million shekels worth of government advertisements from Israel Hayom، which is owned by American tycoon Sheldon Adelson، to Yedioth.
However، if a politician advances a law for reasons unconnected to his job، knowing that the legislation could hurt the public interest، this is a breach of trust. And when a politician advances a law that is against the public interest in return for some form of personal benefit – that is bribery
2. The problem: Arbitrary enforcement
One argument cited by Netanyahu and his associates is “arbitrary enforcement.” In other words، there are plenty of politicians who dance to Mozes’ tune in return for favorable coverage. So why is the prime minister the one being investigated?
There may well be many corrupt public figures who do Mozes’ bidding. It's simply Netanyahu’s misfortune that his relationship with Mozes is documented in numerous hours of recordings and therefore، unlike with other people، there appears to be a very clear evidentiary basis in his case.
Nor can the standing، personal example and responsibility of the person who holds the office of prime minister be ignored. The argument that this case against Netanyahu should be closed because other public officials receive illicit benefits like biased media coverage is as unfounded as would be a bank CEO accused of major embezzlement، who argues that he should be vindicated since junior bank employees or other bank managers also steal customers’ money.
3.The problem: Mozes’ capabilities
Mozes has his own take on the conversations he had with Netanyahu. According to a Channel 13 News report، Mozes claimed when questioned by police، “I had no intention of substantially changing the paper’s manner of coverage. There was just an attempt to budge Netanyahu from his positions regarding Israel Hayom.” It has also been reported that Mozes claimed he had no ability to influence the paper’s editorial board to alter the nature of the coverage.
The claim that Mozes’ control over Yedioth Ahronoth was restricted in any way is ludicrous، of course. A series of accounts of what has been going on at Yedioth in recent years – some of which have been noted above – paint a clear picture: Mozes had the ability to direct the newspaper coverage to suit his needs. Naturally he did not do this directly، but apparently through his senior editors or through the colleague closest to him، Haim Rosenberg، the paper’s financial، security and purchasing manager، who is quite deeply involved in what goes on at the paper and in compiling the blacklists and whitelists.
The testimony of senior Yedioth employees from those years، particularly former editor-in-chief Ron Yaron، could reveal if and how Mozes relayed instructions to editors.
And if that weren’t enough، Gidi Weitz reported in Haaretz that Mozes already began to fulfill the deal، or at least made a "down payment" to demonstrate the seriousness of his intentions: At a late-night meeting between Mozes and Netanyahu، Mozes showed him a Ynet article critical of then-Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and told him، “The Bennett matter has been handled.” The article apparently dealt with the delayed construction of the day-care centers that Bennett promised to build، and said that the minister’s words were one thing and his actions، another.
4.The problem: The deal was never consummated
The claim made by both Mozes and Netanyahu that they were just kidding around with each other and never meant to carry out any deal is supposedly proven by the actual sequence of events: The Israel Hayom law was ultimately not advanced، and this was ostensibly what led to the breakup of Netanyahu’s government in 2014. See، the two men say: There never was any deal between us.
But the argument that the deal was never ultimately consummated doesn’t hold water. First، an offer of bribery، even if never consummated، still counts as the offense of bribery in every way. Second، Israel Police detectives also summoned for questioning other key political players at that time، such as MKs Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin، as well as Sheldon Adelson himself. If those testimonies did not reinforce the evidentiary picture concerning the start of the implementation of the deal، Case 2000 would have been shelved.
Regardless of what happened in 2014، a similar deal between Mozes and Netanyahu was allegedly realized prior to that. During the conversations between the two of them، as reported by Guy Peleg، Mozes said، “We managed it in 2009. You may have forgotten.” What was Mozes referring to? TheMarker reported in 2016 that Mozes and Netanyahu had a deal prior to the 2009 election: positive coverage in return for postponing the debut of the Israel Hayom weekend supplement that would compete with Yedioth’s “7 Days” weekend supplement. In fact، the launch of the free weekend supplement was delayed for months. In other words، Mozes and Netanyahu had a history of closing deals and implementing them.
5.The problem: Deal or blackmail?
Why did Netanyahu record his conversations with Mozes? For now، the answer to that question is apparently only known to the attorn.