Analysis

New Bribery Suspicions Could Prove Game Changer in Netanyahu's Media Case

Reports that media mogul Arnon Mozes presented Netanyahu with evidence that he had acted on his behalf against a political rival upgrades the men's taped conversations from mere gossip to criminal realm.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes.
Atef Safadi/AP and Moti Kimche

When they first became public knowledge, the taped conversations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes were described by those in the know as an investigation with sex appeal but little potential for making a criminal case.

The revelations reported by Gidi Weitz that Mozes told Netanyahu he would act to tarnish the image of one of his political rivals, Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, and provide evidence that he did so, is a major step in changing how we must regard the affair.

What seemed to be a sneak peek at behind-the-scenes gossip of the relations between journalism and those in power has now taken on a clear hue of criminality. In its most severe interpretation, this significantly strengthens suspicions of bribery.

Weitz's revelations show the affair has many other aspects that require investigation, and we can no longer make do with just the testimony of Mozes and Netanyahu. There are also other parties who shared interests at the heart of the alleged bribery: Netanyahu's desire to be reelected in the last election; and Mozes' desire to weaken his biggest competitor, Israel Hayom, and improve his own position.

Such an investigation takes much longer than 45 minutes – the average length of an episode of "Law and Order." And this investigation will require much more time.

Netanyahu and Bennett shaking hands in the Knesset in 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

When questioned, Netanyahu and Mozes both claimed they tried to mislead each other, Weitz reported. But can two people who were trying to cheat one another commit the crime of offering and receiving a bribe?

Their claims of mutual deception were meant to rule out criminal intent. In cases of ethical violations, it is impossible to convict someone who did not have criminal intent.

It is possible that Mozes even offered a bribe but did not intend on actually delivering it in the end. Netanyahu says he presented his willingness to intervene in regulation concerning Israel Hayom, but did not really plan on doing any such thing.

Both of them have seemingly strong proof of their mutual intention to cheat the other: Yedioth Ahronoth continued its militant line against Netanyahu in the end, and Netanyahu called a new election because of the law Mozes supported against Israel Hayom. The end result supports both their narratives.

Yet in this case, the means, and not just the ends, are important. Why did two such suspicious people, who claim they were lying to each other, continue to meet more than once, go into the minute details of an alleged bribery deal – and even carry out actions that look like real bribery and not an attempt to deceive?

It has been reported before that Netanyahu worked to bring new investors and money to Yedioth, such as Australian billionaire James Packer and the German publishing group Axel Springer. Now Weitz has revealed that Mozes showed Netanyahu he had slanted the coverage on his popular Ynet website on the prime minister's behalf.

If Netanyahu had asked for a change in the way the Yedioth group covered him and his rivals, and Mozes supplied the goods, then even a single example is enough to put them into criminal territory.

As far as Mozes is concerned, this looks suspiciously like giving a bribe. This suspicion is reinforced when we add to the picture the testimony of a former Ynet reporter, Avital Lahav, on Channel 22 last Friday.

Lahav said the article he wrote on Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu's right-wing rival, was held back for two weeks and was also edited in a way that was biased against Bennett.

This strengthens the suspicion that Yedioth made use of journalistic material in a way for Mozes to satisfy Netanyahu.

Mozes can always claim he deceived Netanyahu with an article that was unbiased and normal journalistic coverage, and simply presented it as a change in his direction to Netanyahu.

Lahav's testimony would very much weaken such a claim, and this is a matter for the police to clarify.

As for Netanyahu, let us assume for a moment that all his conversations with Mozes were just an attempt to mislead his enemy, without any intention of bribery. By the way, this is an extremely difficult claim to believe for anyone who has listened to the taped conversations between the two men.

Even if Netanyahu did not really intend aiding Mozes against Israel Hayom, he should have expected this false impression to motivate Mozes to act on his behalf.

This framework of expectations in itself could represent the crime of fraud on Netanyahu's part – a serious crime in itself punishable by three years in prison.