The contents of the alleged discussions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes constitutes bribery and could land them in court or even in jail, legal experts interviewed by TheMarker said on Wednesday.
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“If the facts that have been published in the media are correct, the circle of give-and-take has been completed, and constitutes proof under Section 290 of the Penal Code – Bribery,” said attorney Avia Alef, formerly head of the economic division of the State Prosecutor’s Office.
According to information revealed by Haaretz journalist Gidi Weitz, the deal discussed between the two was a trade in which Mozes would ensure favorable coverage of the prime minister and in exchange Netanyahu would advance legislation in the Knesset that would require the freebie daily newspaper, Israel Hayom – Yedioth’s rival – to start charging.
Section 290 says that a public servant that takes bribes connected with his position faces a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. The law sets several tests for what constitutes bribery, but Alef said a trade like the one reported in the media meets all of them.
The Yedioth group, which includes Israel’s largest paid-for daily as well as the popular Ynet news site, has engaged in persistently negative coverage of Netanyahu and his wife for over two decades. Israel Hayom was set up in 2007 with backing of American Jewish billionaire and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a friend and supporter of Netanyahu’s. The paper has taken a consistently pro-Netanyahu line and is now more widely read than Yedioth because it is given away for free.
“The prime minster is a public servant. Under Sections 293-294 on the Penal Code someone can be said to have taken a bribe in a variety of ways – by seeking one, proposing one, accepting one or proposing a bribe in the first place. Bribery – or in the language of the law, a gift – could be positive media coverage or perhaps the public servant choosing which journalists take which jobs, so the literature states,” said Alef.
Yair Yegev, an attorney who was once head of international investigation for the police, agreed with Alef on the gravity of the discussions. “In a case like this, acting to advance legislation in connection with Israel Hayom in the Knesset is directly connected with the job of prime minister,” he explained.
Regev stressed that in relations between the one who offers a bribe and the one who receives it treats the public servant as the more serious offender since he holds the public trust. In any case, experts said a public servant is regarded as engaging in bribery even if the acts were outside the framework of his or her formal responsibilities.
That is because the courts recognize that people in the most powerful roles can act through subordinates. “It’s very difficult to say ‘no’ to a request from the prime minster,” said Alef.
Even if the terms of an illicit deal were never honored, as seems to be the case with the Netanyahu-Mozes agreement, those involved are still engaging in bribery under the law.
“From the Netanyahu side, the law states categorically that the act of seeking a bribe, even if it wasn’t actually taken, is tantamount to receiving a bribe,” said Regev. “From Noni Mozes’ side, too, proposing or promising a bribe, even if it’s turned down, is tantamount to giving a bribe.”
Regev rejected the claim that the prime minister was being blackmailed and had recorded the conversations in order to prove it. “The weight [in court] given to claims like this of blackmail is low,” he said.
Netanyahu has also be accused of accepting cigars, champagne and other gifts from the Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, which the prime minister asserts are nothing more than friendly gifts that didn’t involve any payback related to his job.
In that case, said Regev, Netanyahu may be able to mount a successful defense. However, the allegations concerning Mozes are much more serious.
“We expect the press to act as the watchdog of democracy, that the media will be free and not act under pressure. When someone surrenders to illegitimate interests, he undermines his status and becomes a mercenary,” said Regev. “Journalists feel like pawns on a chessboard.”