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Netanyahu Indictment Decision Looms, but One Case Still Hangs in the Balance

Everything you need to know about the case involving an alleged deal between the prime minister and a newspaper publisher – and the chance it could be shelved

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Knesset session, December 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Knesset session, December 2018. Credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is expected to announce his decision on possibly indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Case 1000, involving extravagant gifts, and Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla case, at the end of this week. Mendelblit, however, is still deliberating whether to indict in Case 2000, the Yedioth Ahronoth quid-pro-quo affair.

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What is Case 2000?

During a police investigation of Avi Harrow, a former Netanyahu bureau chief, police found two recordings on Harrow’s cell phone of meetings the prime minister had with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes. The meetings took place in Netanyahu’s office at the end of 2014, before the 2015 election. According to Mozes, it was Netanyahu who requested the meetings. Harrow was asked by Netanyahu to record them, so he knew the meetings were being documented, although Mozes did not.

From the recordings it emerged that Netanyahu and Mozes were conducting serious negotiations in which Mozes promised Netanyahu to help him remain in power by changing Yedioth’s aggressive anti-Netanyahu tone to more positive coverage. In return, Mozes asked Netanyahu to get a law passed that would considerably weaken Yedioth’s rival, Israel Hayom, by forcing the newspaper, which is distributed free, to charge a fee. It is estimated that such a deal would have been worth hundreds of millions of shekels to Mozes.

However, only two of the many meetings were recorded. According to testimonies gathered, the prime minister responded positively to Mozes’ proposal and promised to advance such a bill, but said he would have to check how to get other politicians to cooperate. Later on, Netanyahu told Mozes that he could not fulfill his end of the deal during the election campaign, but promised that the dramatic move would take place after he was elected to his fourth term.

Not only did Mozes not believe Netanyahu's promises, but the polls were indicating that the prime minister's victory was far from certain. According to some assessments, the total harnessing of the Yedioth Group’s media properties against Netanyahu’s candidacy scuttled the secret relationship between the publisher and the prime minister, and the deal never came to fruition. Netanyahu insisted after the election on keeping the communications portfolio for himself, and signed his coalition partners to a commitment to support any proposal he would make in the media realm.

What are the considerations favoring an indictment?

Despite Mendelblit’s initial reluctance to open an investigation into the case, there was a consensus in the prosecution that Mozes and Netanyahu were involved in a bribery deal – a clear quid pro quo that was documented in the recordings. Netanyahu did not reject Mozes’ proposal or report it to the attorney general.

Netanyahu’s line of defense is that he and Mozes were toying with one another and neither ever intended to keep the promises made to the other. This line of defense will be difficult to maintain, if only because Netanyahu and Mozes had many long meetings, only some of which – six hours’ worth of talks – were recorded. Those who have heard the lengthy dialogue believe it indicates that the parties seriously planned to realize the deal.

Moreover, Harrow, who has turned state’s evidence in the case, was present at some of the meetings and has testified that Netanyahu asked him to look seriously into how to fulfill the deal with Mozes. Among other things, he testified that there was a meeting about advancing Mozes’ demands that was attended by ministers Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin. The two were questioned by police and gave vague versions of what transpired.

Netanyahu confirmed that the meeting took place, but said that it wasn’t aimed at giving Mozes what he wanted, but rather to discuss possible scenarios if a law that restricted Israel Hayom advanced. Another piece of evidence is the testimony of Israel Hayom owner Sheldon Adelson, which strengthens the suspicion that Netanyahu was aiming to fulfill the deal.

What are the considerations in favor of closing the case?

According to sources who have seen the evidence, Netanyahu, who was aware he was being recorded, was careful about what he said. He stressed to Mozes that he believed a law to restrict Israel Hayom was “a proper law.”

There are also scattered voices in the Justice Ministry who believe that despite the evidence, the relationships between publishers and politicians should not be dealt with on a criminal level. Closing Case 2000 for that reason could weaken Case 4000 – which also allegedly involved a promise of positive coverage in return for a benefit. However, Mendelblit might be able to explain that the evidence connecting the positive coverage with Netanyahu’s alleged actions in Case 4000 is much clearer.

What’s the difference between Case 2000 and Case 4000?

In both cases, the bribe allegedly offered to the prime minister was positive media coverage, not envelopes of cash. But in Case 2000 the deal never came to fruition; the Israel Hayom law was not advanced nor were other steps discussed taken, while in Case 4000 the alleged deal did go through in a manner that was visible. The suspicion is that Netanyahu recieved positive coverage on the Walla website, which is owned by Shaul Elovitch, while Netanyahu, as communications minister, made decisions that benefited Elovitch to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels.

Could only Mozes be charged with bribery and not Netanyahu?

According to sources who have seen the evidence, the grounds against Mozes is stronger than the those against Netanyahu, so closing the case against Netanyahu doesn’t necessarily mean Mozes gets off.

If Netanyahu isn’t charged with bribery, could he be charged with breach of trust?

The negotiations between Mozes and Netanyahu ostensibly constitute a breach of trust because the bribery proposal was not reported and because of other steps taken by the prime minister that posed a conflict of interest while he was serving as communications minister. But according to Justice Ministry sources, this is unlikely to happen.

What will happen if Mendelblit decides to close Case 2000?

If Mendelblit decides to close the case, he will publish a detailed report on the reasons for his decision. The state prosecutor’s position will also be published. However, it isn’t clear on what grounds Mendelblit could decide to close the case, because according to sources involved with it, none of the grounds for closing a case – a lack of evidence, a clear lack of guilt, or lack of public interest – exist. In addition, the attorney general would have to explain why he signed a state’s evidence agreement with Harrow, since the main reason for doing so was the information he provided about Netanyahu’s willingness to fulfill the deal being formulated with Mozes.

Will the agreement with Harrow remain in effect if Mendelblit closes the case?

Yes. Under the agreement, in return for the information Harrow supplied, he will confess to arranging the fictitious sale of a company he owned, will be convicted of breach of trust, will do six months of community service and pay a fine of 700,000 shekels ($194,000).