Sheldon Adelson wasn’t just the man who changed the face of print journalism in Israel, he was also an important prosecution witness in the cases against his former friend, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Las Vegas billionaire, who died Tuesday at 87, launched the free daily Israel Hayom in 2007 for two reasons: to get Netanyahu reelected prime minister and weaken the power of Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, at the time Israel’s most influential media magnate.
“Mozes is the strongest man in Israel,” Adelson once said. “All he wants is to preserve his power. He’s also playing with the government and will cut a deal with anyone to advance his personal interests.”
Just before the casino magnate entered the market, Mozes sought to meet with him. “It was the first and only time I ever spoke to him,” Adelson told the police when he gave evidence. “He came to me with tears in his eyes. Trust me, with tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Please, don’t start with this newspaper’ …. He said, ‘Look, this is the only thing I have in my life. I get up in the morning and I eat, drink and dream Yedioth.’
“I answered him, ‘I won’t do it but on one condition .… We and our friends think you’re drifting to the left. If you move to the center, I won’t distribute the paper.’” Mozes answered that he was already “center-right” as well as “balanced and fair.”
So Adelson, who didn’t believe him, became the man who would turn Mozes’ life upside down by giving him some competition. The birth of Israel Hayom was what led to the secret and corrupt conversations between Netanyahu and Mozes that became known as Case 2000, which ended in the indictment of two of Israel’s most powerful men.
From the minute Netanyahu was on the verge of returning to power in 2009 until the end of 2014, Mozes and Netanyahu held secret talks aimed at getting the Yedioth Ahronoth Group to sharply skew its coverage to the benefit of Netanyahu and his family. In return, Netanyahu would have Adelson ease up at Israel Hayom.
Time after time it seemed Netanyahu and Mozes were coming to an agreement, and time after time it was Adelson who ruined their plans. Even though Adelson admired the prime minister and saw him as a wise man with street smarts who “speaks English better than I do,” he refused to be a pawn in the unholy alliance Netanyahu was trying to forge with the hostile publisher. He realized they were trying to drag him into criminality.
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Over time, even Mozes caught on that in the relationship between Netanyahu and Adelson, money called the shots. “Netanyahu was certain he could do anything he wanted,” Mozes told the police. “[But] in their relationship, Sheldon always had the upper hand and Netanyahu wasn’t a free agent.”
While Adelson didn’t allow Netanyahu to make a deal with Mozes, he turned his newspaper into the prime minister’s main propaganda organ. Even though his paper treated Netanyahu like a demigod, when he would visit the official residence on Balfour Street he’d encounter complaints from Bibi and his wife that sometimes turned into horror shows.
“Both of them yelled at me,” Adelson told the police. “They didn’t feel they were getting good press from Israel Hayom, and she complained that she wasn’t getting enough good pictures of herself and that we should write articles about what a wonderful mother and child psychologist she was.”
Adelson diagnosed Netanyahu’s relationship with the media as “compulsive behavior” and “insanity.” In 2017, when the Yedioth case came to light, it became clear to Adelson that Netanyahu had been negotiating with Mozes behind his back. Adelson lashed out at his close friend, cut off ties with him and gave some pretty explosive testimony to the police, telling them that on several occasions Netanyahu had made requests aimed at a détente with Mozes.
Over the past year state prosecutors knew that Adelson’s health was deteriorating and they were eager to present his testimony. But, amid the snail’s pace of the proceedings against Netanyahu, he died before he could take the stand.
It could be that the prosecution team now regrets not requesting that Adelson testify before the trial, similar to the advance testimony by Morris Talansky in the “cash envelopes case” against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But it’s doubtful that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit would have allowed it. In private conversations, Mendelbit has said that if he had been attorney general during the Olmert investigations he never would have expedited Talansky’s testimony that way.
Still, the weight of Adelson’s testimony doesn’t match that of Talansky’s. While the gambling tycoon’s evidence undermined Netanyahu’s narrative that the conversations with Mozes were meaningless exchanges between “two foxes,” the Yedioth case isn’t based on this and won’t fall apart for the lack of it.
The heart of the criminal case remains the recorded negotiations between the two main players. In any event, the void left by Adelson’s death will be partially filled by his widow, Miriam, who was present at some of the plot’s major scenes. She’s also the one who presumably will continue publishing the free daily that changed Israel’s rules of the game.