History Will Judge Israel's Attorney General for His Decision on Netanyahu

Avichai Mendelblit is facing fateful indictment decisions in the criminal investigations against Netanyahu and others

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, February 24, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, February 24, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Nati Toker
Nati Tucker

There are times when the course of history is changed due to decisions made by people of high stature, precipitating developments that are remembered for generations. This is one of those moments, as Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is about to issue his decisions regarding the possible indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the several criminal cases over which he has been investigated. Mendelblit’s decision could seal the fates not only of the suspects in the cases, but of Israel as a whole.

According to reports, Mendelblit is currently deliberating over whether to file charges in Case 2000, which involves conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, allegedly involving bribery - through which Mozes would purportedly give Netanyahu positive coverage in his newspaper in exchange for government policy that would weaken Yedioth’s competition from the free newspaper Israel Hayom. Contrary to the opinion of most prosecutors who have been involved in the case, Mendelblit is apparently inclined - and perhaps has already decided - not to press charges in the case.

>> Read more: This Netanyahu corruption case is the gravest threat to Israel’s democracy ■ 'No deal if Netanyahu doesn't sign': Tycoon's statements shed new light on bribery base

Why? According to reports, he believes, for reasons that remain unknown, that there’s no reason to get involved in the media sector and address the industry at the criminal level.

Unlike Case 2000, Mendelblit has apparently decided to file criminal charges against the prime minister in Case 4000, which involves his contacts with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder at the time of the Bezeq telecommunications company. On the surface, there aren’t many major differences between the two cases. In both, the payback that Netanyahu allegedly received or would have received was positive media coverage and de facto control of media outlets — whether Yedioth Ahronoth and its Ynet news website or Bezeq’s Walla news website.

There is in fact a fundamental difference between Case 2000 and Case 4000, but it’s the opposite of what it appears to be and contrary to what Mendelblit would appear to be thinking. Elovitch is a small fish in the media industry compared to Mozes, a sorry imitation.

What purportedly happened at Walla was a pale version of what went on unseen at Yedioth Ahronoth for decades. Anything at Walla had a minimal impact on the public consciousness, and mostly involved a few of Elovitch's narrowly focused interests.

By contrast, at Yedioth, the events touched on a complex network of the interests of Mozes and his cronies on nearly every subject on the public agenda, and in the process, created and shaped public discourse in Israel.

For years, Mozes controlled Israel’s public consciousness. He did it directly through the media outlets under his control or through his control of a string of other media outlets and journalists who worked for him. Here and there, accounts of the goings-on at Yedioth emerged, of white lists and black lists, of who would be helped and who would be taken down, but aside from a few articles in TheMarker, The Seventh Eye and on the Mako website, a reign of fear prevented a public discussion of the failings.

Mozes’ control over public discourse created incredible distortions. He used his strength to influence prime ministers and their cabinet colleagues. He fought reforms that wouldn’t have helped him or his cronies and provided copious PR to business partners. He also tried to attack the court system and law enforcement when they harmed friends of his, such as Ehud Olmert.

Yedioth Ahronoth also contributed to the advent of the Netanyahu mouthpiece Israel Hayom. In his battle for control directed against Netanyahu, which at times knew no bounds, Mozes brought U.S. gambling baron Sheldon Adelson — who was good enough to come to Netanyahu’s assistance — upon himself. And along the way, Adelson apparently lost more than 1 billion shekels ($276 million) in Israel. Political discourse was taken was taken down another notch and all of the journalistic principles were violated.

That’s much worse than envelopes of cash and much worse than bribery. The distortion of the public discourse has had a wide impact that touches on nearly every possible field.

Over the past year, both Yedioth and Israel Hayom have tried to turn the page. They have new editors and new management and allegedly more balanced coverage. But in both cases, these are fake attempts to project a more balanced image. At Yedioth, Mozes increased his control over the newsroom and the system hasn’t changed, while Israel Hayom continues to echo messages from Netanyahu’s bureau, just as it did in the days when Netanyahu and the editor-in-chief had a nightly phone call. Maybe they still do.

Mendelblit is facing a historic moment. He has a plethora of recordings, testimony and other evidence of the corrupt methods at Yedioth and of Netanyahu’s alleged receptiveness to a deal. If he lets these two people get off as if nothing happened, he will essentially be giving a stamp of approval to corrupt, dangerous relations in the public sphere.

Want to strike a deal with a newspaper publisher to trade positive coverage for benefits worth hundreds of millions of shekels? Go right ahead, why not?

The snowball has already started rolling.

The public already knows what’s going on at Yedioth and how dangerous it is for Israeli democracy. One day, maybe years from now, it will blow up and all the information will be available to everyone. And then, when Mendelblit himself may already be retired, he will be invited to public events and people will ask him one question: “How did you allow it to continue?”

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