How Avigdor Lieberman Won the Battle for the Israeli Media That Netanyahu Lost

From Shaul Elovitch to Arnon Mozes – two names caught up in the prime minister's corruption affairs – the kingmaker of Israeli politics has taught a lesson about schmoozing media barons

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, July 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

“You have neglected the only Russian who can be trusted,” wrote Shaul Elovitch, then the controlling shareholder of Israeli telecom giant Bezeq, to Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of its Walla news website. In this text-message exchange on the eve of Israel’s 2015 election, Elovitch was referring to the kingmaker of Israeli politics, Avigdor Lieberman, who actually was born in Moldova, not Russia.

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Yeshua wrote back that he would try to “move things forward,” and added a sentence containing a lesson about the connection between politics, money and the media: “The Russian puts all his election budget into Ynet” – a rival news site owned by the daily Yedioth Ahronoth – “and zero into Walla.”

Lieberman was right, Elovitch admitted. “We mow him down and they pamper him. Anyone would act like he does. Too bad; he could be a real friend.”

Back then, Lieberman was usually treated kindly by the media outlets in the Yedioth Ahronoth Group, and was considered a friend of the daily’s publisher Arnon Mozes – a friendship that neither side concealed. Elovitch, who was trying hard to coddle Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family, didn’t want to ruin his relationship with Lieberman, the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

All told, Lieberman has succeeded where Netanyahu, once Lieberman’s political patron, has suffered a heavy failure: the weaving of close ties with some of the country’s economic elites and media barons.

After the 2015 election, as is his wont, Lieberman shocked Israeli politics, this time by staying out of Netanyahu’s governing coalition. In May 2016 came more shock: He entered the government and became defense minister.

“God help us – we can expect some crazy weeks,” Yeshua predicted in a text message 24 hours after that May 2016 appointment. “You have to be super alert,” warned his boss’ wife, Iris Elovitch, in the text-message exchange obtained by Haaretz. “On your site they’re going to attack like crazy.”

“Caution and wisdom,” her husband responded and demanded that Yeshua not let his journalists blast the new political alliance. “Make sure they don’t criticize the move in a scathing way. Even more, you mustn’t irk Evet,” Elovitch added, using Lieberman’s nickname. “I’m afraid that the guys are already sharpening their knives.”

The morning after that warning, Amir Tibon (now Haaretz’s Washington correspondent) wrote an article on an opinion poll by pollster Camil Fuchs that the site had commissioned. The question was about who was best suited to be defense minister: Lieberman or his deposed predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon. Half the respondents chose Ya’alon and 29 percent Lieberman. Half an hour after the article went online, Elovitch sent a screenshot of it to Yeshua.

Shaul Elovitch in court in February 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

“I’ve seen it,” Yeshua replied quickly. “I’ve given the order to take it down. It won’t happen again.”

“Ilan, you of all people should know how hard it is to take something down. But Tibon … ” Elovitch replied, and didn’t complete the sentence.

Yeshua answered: “He’s my only problem at the moment. I’ll fire him .... It won’t happen again.”

Iris Elovitch suggested: “Let him go on honeymoon leave,” and she added: “Block any possibility of putting up items independently, the way we said.”

Yeshua promised: “I will personally approve every front-page headline. I will function as the actual editor.”

That same day, in another text message, Elovitch detailed things that Lieberman had purportedly said to close friends about his relations with the media barons: “Noni [Mozes] is fine with me. Eli Azur” – the controlling shareholder of the daily Maariv and a good friend of Lieberman’s – “is fine with me. But I screw him, and he isn’t a person who forgets.”

Yeshua informed Elovitch that the article had been taken off the site. “There was a hot warning about a terror attack,” Iris Elovitch said figuratively, and we didn’t prevent it. “Let him” – Tibon – "concentrate on Shelley and Bougie” – Labor Party politicians Shelly Yacimovich and Isaac Herzog. “There’s a lot there …. Let Tal Shalev put out something that sounds positive,” she added, referring to Walla’s political correspondent.

Three months after the “terror attack” that hadn’t been prevented, another one occurred. “The Russian’s headline is terrible and has already been up for a few hours now,” Shaul Elovitch wrote in August 2016.

“Dealing with it,” Yeshua promised, and the next day he reported to the Elovitches about another wayward article. “I asked them to throw out Danny Ayalon.” In a Walla studio interview, Ayalon, a former deputy foreign minister, had criticized Lieberman for comparing the Iranian nuclear deal to the 1938 Munich Agreement.

“It’s strange that they don’t extrapolate from yesterday to today,” Iris Elovitch complained about the journalists. “Teaching them 100 things won’t help in the 101st case.”

Shaul Elovitch responded: “I fear we’ve badly damaged the Russian in the past few days. Elovitch ordered Yeshua to call one of Lieberman’s advisers and ask whether “everything is okay and whether he needs anything.” He capped the text message with the sentence: “I need him in the coming days.”

That month the news broke that Elovitch was set to sell Spacecom, which operates communications satellites, to a Chinese company for $190 million. It was also reported that the sale needed approval from both the defense and communications ministries. On the day the sale was reported on, Yeshua congratulated Elovitch and added: “In any case, I’m dealing personally with the sensitive front.”

“Very important,” Elovitch replied, and mentioned “the friend from Russia.” To improve the relationship between the owners of the news site and the defense minister, Yeshua met with Lieberman and later with his son and updated Elovitch about the burgeoning ties.

“Excellent,” the boss said. Not long after that, a failed satellite launch by Spacecom changed the plans and the sale fell through. “This was a disaster for the company,” said the chairman of Spacecom, the Elovitches' son Or Elovitch.

In February 2018, the police arrested Shaul Elovitch as part of the investigation in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu has been charged with bribery. In November 2018, Lieberman resigned from Netanyahu’s government.

This story teaches a lot about Elovitch, particularly the way he perceived the media outlets he controlled: a tool for coddling regulators and government officials, or a tool for punishing anyone who harmed his economic interests.

Arnon Mozes on his way to speak with police investigators in 2017.
Ofer Vaknin

‘The darling of Yedioth Ahronoth’

The relationship between Lieberman, Elovitch and the people at Walla was always overshadowed by a far older and more significant relationship: Lieberman and the Yedioth Ahronoth Group.

At the beginning of 2017, Yedioth publisher Mozes reported to the offices of Lahav 433, the police’s anti-fraud unit. The suspicion, according to the investigation, was an attempt to bribe Netanyahu. The head of the unit, Koresh Bar-Nur, asked Mozes to look him in the eye.

“I’m looking at you,” Mozes responded.

“I have a feeling you’re hiding something from me,” Bar-Nur said, trying to prompt Mozes to talk. “A person who has seen a lot of people under questioning knows how to recognize the signs.”

The veteran investigator tried to understand which politicians were in relationships with Mozes and how often he had spoken with them in an attempt to promote a bill that had tremendous economic significance for him. The bill was aimed at weakening competitor Israel Hayom and making Yedioth Israel’s most popular newspaper again.

“Who have you spoken to?” Bar-Nur asked. “Give me a list out of the 120 Knesset members.”

Mozes had a hard time remembering. In the end, the names of a number of politicians were tossed into the air. Mozes told Bar-Nur that he remembered being in direct contact with two people. The first was the bill’s initiator, Eitan Cabel. The Labor Party legislator was later questioned on suspicion of an illegal relationship with Mozes, but the case was closed for a lack of evidence.

The second person Mozes mentioned was Lieberman. The Yedioth publisher even confirmed that he had brought together Cabel and Robert Ilatov, at the time Yisrael Beiteinu's floor leader in the Knesset. Both Cabel and Ilatov endorsed the bill. In November 2014, the Yisrael Beiteinu legislators voted in favor in an early vote in the legislative process.

The good relations between Mozes and Lieberman were well known to Yedioth’s employees. “From time to time he’d make a point of his close relationship with Mozes,” a former Yedioth journalist told Haaretz. “For example, he could say ‘I can talk to Noni’ if he wanted news on him to get into the paper.”

According to another journalist, “Mozes also used to flatter him, and tell us that Lieberman is a real man.”

A senior editor in the Yedioth group told Haaretz: “Mozes showed a kind of respect toward him.”

Along with being the favorite of Yedioth Ahronoth and Ynet, it seems Lieberman and his party associates also won influence with another media organization controlled by the Yedioth group: the Russian-language newspaper Vesti. “Vesti is Lieberman’s newspaper,” said Timor Valin, who for many years was the editor of Vesti’s political magazine.

“To the best of my recollection, this began around the 2009 election campaign, when we started getting hints regarding Lieberman from the newspaper’s CEO, David Meir. Once, when I tried to put in some minimal criticism of Lieberman, one of the editors yelled at me: ‘Don’t you understand the situation?’

“The hints were that the man in charge was Mozes. Lieberman was also a darling of Yedioth Ahronoth, and Vesti had tremendous influence on the Russian electorate. The Lieberman issue was the only area where they limited our journalistic freedom.”

Dov Kontorer, the leading political columnist at Vesti, wasn’t deterred form criticizing Lieberman, thus his life at the paper wasn’t very comfortable.

“This was a period when it wasn’t popular to have reservations and be critical of Lieberman. And that exacted a price. Lieberman always had influence at Vesti via Yedioth Ahronoth,” Kontorer said.

“There were definitely situations in which the editors asked me to moderate criticism of him, sometimes because of his power and his connections with Yedioth Ahronoth. Most of the pressure and censorship occurred during election campaigns, and I think this was also part of the Yedioth vendetta against Netanyahu. They preferred to have the Russian votes go elsewhere and not to Likud.”

When asked if he felt that writing against Lieberman would hit him in the pocket, and if he censored himself regarding Lieberman, he answered yes to both questions.

A person who held an important position at Vesti during that period added: “The control by Lieberman and his people included the dictation of top headlines, the demand to rein in writing by journalists they didn’t like and the hiring of ‘his’ people.”

Meir did not respond to a query from Haaretz. Mozes has not responded to media queries since Case 2000, the Netanyahu-Mozes quid pro quo case, broke. In his police interrogation, he denied that he dictated to editors and journalists to take a positive or negative stance on politicians.

Yisrael Beiteinu's Faina Kirshenbaum in court in 2018.
Nir Keidar

The party mouthpiece that vanished

Toward the end of 2014, the Yisrael Beiteinu affair broke. The police interrogated top people in the party, among them Faina Kirshenbaum, on suspicion of illegally transferring millions of shekels from governing-coalition funds that should have gone to the party. According to the indictments filed against her and other Yisrael Beiteinu members, the transfer of funds to the Megilot Regional Council in the West Bank, to a company for developing the northern West Bank and to the Ayalim Association for developing the Negev was conditioned on transferring huge sums to the Russian news site Yazrus.

In the investigation it emerged that the site served as a mouthpiece for the party, which paid it money in circuitous ways. In return, Yisrael Beiteinu received puff pieces and control over content. The owner, Michael Palkov, transferred control of the site for free to a man named Alex Goldenstein. In the meantime, Palkov flew off to Ukraine and is no longer a public figure.

Goldenstein kept in close touch with Lieberman: He would send him a bottle of whiskey or wine for his birthday. A senior writer at the site would call Lieberman by code names: “the director” and “the boss.” Lieberman’s right-hand man David Godovksy called site “a money extractor.”

In the summer of 2014, Goldenstein met with Kirshenbaum in her office. “The situation isn’t good,” he told her about the site’s economic difficulties. “Why don’t you sell it?” wondered Kirshenbaum, the deputy interior minister at the time.

“No one is standing in line. There are no profits. I can barely pay the employees,” Goldenstein answered.

Shortly after that meeting, the investigation began. Goldenstein was interrogated, but eventually the case against him was closed. Yazrus’ reputation suffered and its situation continued to worsen. In the summer of 2015, a buyer was found for it – not just any buyer but the Yedioth Ahronoth Group.

According to a Vesti journalist at the time, “David Meir showed up and announced: They bought a site for us. It was clear that this wasn’t his decision.”

For two years following the sale, Yazrus operated under the wing of Mozes’ media empire, including a commitment to preserve the working conditions of the site’s two main journalists. About two years after the sale, the site was shut down and its articles disappeared from the web.

“The erasure of the history of the site is a wicked and insane act that maybe happened because of what happened to him” – Mozes – “with Netanyahu,” Goldenstein said.

“I never had any indication that anyone in Yisrael Beiteinu or Lieberman was connected to the sale of the site. I was approached by someone from Yedioth Ahronoth’s management. I don’t remember who. During my days as owner of the site, we didn’t work only with Yisrael Beiteinu but also with many other parties.”

And as he put it, “I got to know Lieberman better only after the arrest, when the party hired me for the campaign in 2015. Since then I’ve worked on political campaigns for local governments, mainly for Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud. I also worked with Yisrael Beiteinu for the April election.”

Vesti’s editor from 2016 to 2018, Alexander Vilensky, said: “The rumor about Vesti-Lieberman connections exists and is circulating among Russian speakers.” But he added: “In my opinion, it’s just an illusion that was born of Lieberman’s cooperation with the newspaper; agreement to interviews, for example.”

Responses

According to a statement released for Lieberman, “No one on behalf of Elovitch has ever approached or discussed a business matter with MK Lieberman, neither directly nor indirectly. MK Lieberman has met with Elovitch on a number of different occasions by chance, and beyond polite exchanges has never discussed any subject with him.”

Regarding his connections with the Russian-language press: “Mr. Lieberman has no connection either to the editorial line of Vesti or to the sale or purchase of the site Yazrus.”

The attorneys for Shaul and Iris Elovitch, Jacques Chen and Michal Rosen-Ozer, responded: “As the case has come under judicial review, we hope that there will be an end to the smear campaign and the brutal leaks that have been going on for about three years, and the legal process will return to its rightful place, where the truth will be clarified. We believe that the honorable court will reach a conclusion where the evidence shows that Shaul and Iris Elovitch did not commit the offenses and deeds attributed to them.”