Netanyahu Employed Threats to Get Better News Coverage, Former Aide Tells Court

In his testimony, Nir Hefetz, who served as the former PM's family spokesman, said Yedioth Ahronoth's publisher was warned that a competitor would destroy the paper if Netanyahu coverage didn't soften

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Former Netanyahu family spokesperson Nir Hefetz testifies at the Jerusalem District Court, on Tuesday.
Former Netanyahu family spokesperson Nir Hefetz testifies at the Jerusalem District Court, on Tuesday. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used threats of media competition in his effort to get the daily Yedioth Ahronoth to give him more favorable coverage, a former aide testified in Netanyahu’s corruption trial on Tuesday.

Nir Hefetz, who served as the Netanyahu family’s spokesman, told the Jerusalem District Court about two such incidents. Both relate to the charge that Netanyahu tried to negotiate with Yedioth’s owner, Arnon Mozes, to obtain more favorable coverage for himself in exchange for competitive restraints on the rival daily Israel Hayom. That daily was founded by the late Sheldon Adelson, an American Jewish multi-billionaire and major Netanyahu backer.

In 2009, Hefetz said, Netanyahu’s then-chief of staff, Natan Eshel, told him of an incident that occurred before Israel Hayom opened. Adelson sent Eshel to Mozes to warn “that if he doesn’t stop being a newspaper hostile to Netanyahu, Sheldon’s thing will be established and destroy Yediot,” Hefetz said, referring to Israel Hayom.

Eshel, who delivered this threat in Mozes’ office, added that if Yedioth “doesn’t fall into line, this will happen,” Hefetz continued.

Adelson also made personal threats against Mozes, Hefetz said, but “the personal threats were nonsense. The real threat was to crush the Yedioth Ahronoth group.” And for Mozes, this would mean not just economic ruin, but personal ruin, “because this paper is dearer to him than his own flesh,” Hefetz added.

Hefetz said there was no economic logic to Israel Hayom’s establishment. “It was apparently started for ideological reasons. A print and advertising market this small has no room for another player, and certainly not for a player that’s distributed for free,” he said.

“In the best case, this paper loses tens of millions a year,” he added. “It’s distributed for free unequivocally to destroy what Arnon Mozes sees as his life’s work. It’s practically his whole being.”

The other incident Hefetz described occurred in 2009, when Netanyahu sent him to Mozes to warn the publisher against pushing for legislation that would effectively kill Israel Hayom by making it illegal for a foreign national to control an Israeli paper.

Mozes’ lawyer showed the court sections of Hefetz’s diary in which he wrote that “Bibi said Sheldon sees this as crossing a red line, that he can print 600,000 copies or even a million. Sheldon grew up as a businessman in Las Vegas and won out over major gangsters, and it doesn’t pay to start a war with him.”

Hefetz said he heard Netanyahu threaten Mozes “many times.” He added that Netanyahu often claimed to be in possession of “personal information” about Mozes, but the former premier “never gave any details.”

Hefetz also described conversations between Netanyahu and Amos Regev, then Israel Hayom’s editor-in-chief, in which Netanyahu “demanded that Israel Hayom go after Mr. Mozes personally with all its might.” He said the former prime minister and his wife “used to complain that Israel Hayom was too easy on Yedioth Ahronoth.”

Hefetz is supposed to conclude his testimony on Wednesday.

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