Analysis

Netanyahu and Publisher Have Been Doing Deals for Decades

The recordings leaked over the weekend point to a long history of secret agreements for positive coverage — and buried stories — in Arnon Mozes's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper

Arnon Mozes and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, illustration.
Amos Biderman

One thing is clear from the latest developments in the case of alleged quid-pro-quo between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes: The two can’t employ freedom of the press in their defense.

The claim that criminalizing the relations between publishers and politicians would endanger the future of press freedom is undermined by the recordings Raviv Drucker broadcast over the weekend on Channel 13’s Hamakor program.

Netanyahu can spend as much money as he wants in an attempt to construct such a claim (in any case, it will be his friend Spencer Partrich will be paying the bill). But it won’t change what legal experts have to say when they hear the recordings of Netanyahu and Mozes bargaining over the editorial content of Yedioth as if it were tomatoes in some open air market.

The failure to criminalize the kind of wheeling and dealing of Netanyahu and Mozes is what will endanger freedom of the press in Israel.

Last Thursday morning Ben-Dror Yemini, the Yedioth Ahronoth journalist, again tried to claim that in practice Mozes can’t put the newspaper’s editorial line on the block because the newsroom has powerful journalists who won’t be told what to do. If he had known that later that day Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz would reveal the transcripts of the investigation, perhaps he would have waited to make such a claim.

Mozes himself, as was quoted in the transcripts, contradicts Yemini. Mozes revealed that at Yedioth, blocking publication of stories at the behest of politicians was a routine thing. “Working with public figures, Knesset members and ministers, you are sometimes asked not to publish a certain piece of news and then you don’t publish it. These things aren’t unusual,” he told police investigators.

In the recordings released over the weekend by Channel 13 we also learned that Mozes was in the habit of stopping senior commentator Shimon Shiffer from writing freely for the newspaper. “There are things that he says on the radio or television for which I’d like to kill him,” Mozes told Netanyahu, adding: “At the newspaper he wouldn’t write that. There’s not a chance in the world.”

Mozes called ex-Yedioth journalist Igal Sarna a “leftist” and said he wants to fire him (which he eventually did).

The most dramatic part of the recordings is Mozes’ recalling that he and Netanyahu had made successful deals for favorable coverage in the past and that they were entering into the fourth election where they planned to mislead the newspaper’s readers.

The first time was in 1996, when Netanyahu was leading the Likud into the election for the first time, and Yedioth declared in a dramatic headline that he had won the debate with Shimon Peres. In 2009, when Netanyahu was running again, the two reached a secret agreement that was apparently satisfactory to all.

The same mechanism was put into action in advance of the 2015 vote, with Yedioth running negative news reports about Netanyahu’s rival, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, and ensuring friendly coverage of Netanyahu’s wife, Sara. When the 2015 campaign got underway and Netanyahu and Mozes failed to reach an understanding, the newspaper changed its editorial line.

“You need to manage the journalists,” Mozes told the prime minister, explaining why Channel 10’s coverage was so seemingly hostile even though it was controlled at the time by Netanyahu allies Arnon Milchan and Ron Lauder. “You need to know how to do it,” he added.

The so-called Case 2000 recordings are particularly incriminating for Mozes. It’s clear that he was offering Netanyahu a valuable gift and that in return he expected legislation that would have reined in Yedioth’s rival, the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom. That is solicitation of a bribe pure and simple.

“Assuming that there’s a law that you and I agree on,” Mozes promised the prime minister, Yedioth will back Netanyahu to the extent that “you’ll be here [as prime minister] as long as you want.”

Netanyahu, on the other hand, is much less forthright. There’s no doubt that he knew the conversation was being recorded (he arranged for it) and is known to have gotten a legal opinion from his attorney, David Shimron, not to reach an explicit quid pro quo agreement. In spite of the warning, Netanyahu still slipped up on a few points, thereby giving the prosecution the opportunity, if it wants, to implicate him in bribery.

“We need to reach a compromise,” in other words, an agreement, Netanyahu told Mozes. Mozes used the expression “a law you and I can agree on,” and Netanyahu accepted this interpretation of the agreement.

The prime minister has said again and again that the Israel Hayom law, which would have banned the distribution of free newspapers, is “good legislation” that he planned to advance for the public good. That stands in contrast to statements he made to investigators and to the public that he sought to block the law and even moved forward the election to do so.

In every instance, Netanyahu added a “but,” such as: “But if you try to bring me down, I’ll use every tool I have.” He said this repeatedly, in different formulations. What tools? Among them, no passage of the Israel Hayom law, which is exactly what happened. Netanyahu made good on his threat.

The kind of bribery Netanyahu was suspected of in the earliest stages of Case 2000 were solicitation and stipulation of a bribe, meaning it was enough to set the terms for a bribe even if the deal was never completed.

Netanyahu was indeed heard in the tapes linking Yedioth coverage to the legislation, so concluded prosecutors. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit decided, however, to limit the accusations to fraud and breach of trust. That can also be proven by the recordings.

There’s no doubt that Netanyahu stands to gain from Knesset legislation when it isn’t about the questions of whether the law is good or not, but about how he will be covered by Yedioth. It is hard to understand why Mendelblit thought that the chances of a conviction for fraud and breach of trust against Netanyahu were better.