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Behind Netanyahu's Secret Tape Scandal: A 25-year War

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016. Credit: ABIR SULTAN/AP

The complex set of relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the publisher and owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

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Under the title “Bibi Vs. Noni – a battle between power and the press,” Dr. Doron Navot of Haifa University laid out the story that began in the first half of the 1990s. But more than a story about Netanyahu, he revealed Mozes’ conduct and the ways he used the Yedioth Ahronoth Group – which includes Israel’s biggest daily newspaper, the Ynet website and other media properties – to further his business and personal interests.

Navot explained that the conflict between the two began as soon as Netanyahu entered politics. Mozes and Yedioth Ahronoth, then a near-monopoly in the media world, were a central component of the Israeli business and political elite; Netanyahu was an outsider. The gloves came off in the 1996 election when Yedioth came out in favor of the Labor Party’s candidate, Shimon Peres.

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Later, as finance minister, Netanyahu was responsible for a series of reforms that were opposed by businessmen and bankers close to Mozes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon (Noni) Mozes.Credit: Atef Safadi/AP and Moti Kimche

Netanyahu won the 1996 election, but he learned the power of the press and began thinking about getting his own newspaper. Just over a decade later, the newspaper Israel Hayom was launched with the financial backing of U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson: On the one hand it had little influence on public debate or on decision makers, but on the other it caused advertising rates to plummet – and hurt Yedioth’s profits.

Navot said that Mozes’ survival and the power structure he had created depended on his ability to undermine Netanyahu.

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Netanyahu would deprive the publishing group of access to power centers (for example, ensuring Shimon Peres was president instead of leader of the opposition) or weaken the financial structure that supported Yedioth Ahronoth (like Bank Hapoalim, which had a near-monopoly status and would be hurt by a move to a competitive market) and on the advertisers the newspaper relied upon (big advertisers that benefit from business concentration).

The public was aware of the endless stream of articles attacking Netanyahu or his wife Sara, but was less aware of how Mozes and Yedioth supported politicians that would help the publisher – most of them alternatives or outright enemies of Netanyahu’s, like Peres, Olmert, Yair Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman, Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett.

As this list suggests, the test of Yedioth’s support was not ideological but business-oriented. Anyone who could undermine Netanyahu, who might one day replace him, who could threaten him in public or the Knesset won the backing of Yedioth and Mozes.

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In recent years, the struggle between Netanyahu and Mozes ratcheted up another level. Before the last Knesset election, the prime minister hinted time and again, sometimes through Facebook posts, that Mozes and Yedioth were trying to destroy him. “Mozes is leading a well-timed and orchestrated campaign against Likud and me for business reasons, to return the dangerous and antidemocratic monopoly that once characterized his newspaper and business,” Netanyahu wrote in 2015.

Mozes, meanwhile, had turned Ynet into his weapon of choice against Netanyahu: Navot found that among 57 headlines during election week in March 2015, 32 were critical of Netanyahu and his government (nearly 60%); most of the others praised his opponents.

During the 2011 social-justice protests, Yedioth covered the demonstrations favorably – so long as they were directed at Netanyahu. But when the protests changed direction and targeted the tycoons, Ynet’s support evaporated almost overnight.

The current police investigation brings the story back to 2009. It’s not clear what exactly Netanyahu offered Mozes concerning Israel Hayom, but whatever it was was meant to be very profitable to him. In return, it’s clear that Mozes offered to make his newspaper’s editorial line more Bibi-friendly.

The public discussion will undoubtedly focus on the political angle of the recorded conversation. Experts will explain the criminal implications and debate whether Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will act. Opposition politicians will call on Netanyahu to resign immediately. Likud will support its leader and his version that “there will not be anything because there is nothing.”

But the debate will be missing the real story, which is about the phenomenon of money, power and the media in Israel, and the backstory of Mozes and Yedioth. You can be for or against Netanyahu, but you can’t be indifferent to the Mozes system.

What is the meaning of the Bibi-Mozes conversation? Was it legitimate business, bribery, extortion? That’s for the lawyers to decide. Mozes ran Yedioth and Ynet according to his business interests. But you can only imagine that if he treated Netanyahu the way he did, how does he treat other businesses, competitors, banks and politicians with less power than the prime minister?

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