Analysis

As It Turns Out, Netanyahu Is Willing to Negotiate With the 'Evil Empire'

Jaw-dropping revelations about PM's secret talk with Yedioth Ahronoth's publisher undercut fundamental assumptions that the political and media worlds have been operating under. And did Sheldon Adelson know?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes.
Atef Safadi/AP and Moti Kimche

For the nine-and-a half years that the Israel Hayom daily has been appearing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been leveraging this journalistic advocate of his. He uses it to threaten and to pamper; he uses it to deter, to compensate and to avenge. Directly or indirectly he will make his interlocutors understand that those who are with him will be rewarded on the pages of Israel Hayom, while those who are against him will be attacked there mercilessly.

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Until Sunday this was something of an urban legend. Netanyahu’s political rivals would tell their friends how coverage in the “Bibipaper,” as it was dubbed, was used against them or in their favor. Netanyahu used the free daily as a strategic weapon.

The talks he held in 2009 with Noni Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth and Ynet, regarding the launching of Israel Hayom’s weekend supplement was a type of give and take with a lot of money at stake. On the table was not just the weekend supplement, but also circulation and even the price of ads. Everything was open for negotiation. Netanyahu, who was already considered the editor-in-chief of the propaganda freebie, apparently conducted himself at times as the owner of the paper as well.

The dramatic revelations on Sunday in Haaretz and on Channel 2 News about the Netanyahu-Mozes conversation (or conversations) connected the close link between the premier and Israel Hayom with the ongoing conflict between him and Yedioth Ahronoth. These jaw-dropping revelations undercut some of the fundamental assumptions that the political and media worlds have been operating under during the past few years.

Not only was the man at the helm of “Noni’s evil empire,” as the Bibipaper frequently referred to the Yedioth Group, conducting a dialogue with the prime minister, but at least one documented conversation dealt with restraining or reducing the power of the freebie in exchange for a change in the Yedioth Group’s hostile, critical coverage of the prime minister.

But it’s not just that. For what seems like forever we’ve gotten used to hearing from Netanyahu that politicians who aren’t his lackeys and sycophants automatically belong to the “Noni gang.” The list ranges from Tzipi Livni to Isaac Herzog, from Yair Lapid to Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Sheked, Gideon Sa’ar, Moshe Ya’alon, Moshe Kahlon, Yisrael Katz and Avigdor Lieberman and many more. All of them were Noni-ists. Now we have learned that behind the scenes there were allegedly suggestions made and an effort to make a shady, underhanded deal between two people who publicly acted like bitter enemies, as if on principle.

The alleged reason for the meeting between the two involved a plan to report something about Netanyahu’s oldest son, Yair. Netanyahu wanted to block publication; Mozes listened. During the conversation there were proposals, or requests, or negotiations that according to those who listened to the recording sounded like horse trading.

Did Sheldon know?

The reports by Gidi Weitz in this newspaper and Guy Peleg on Channel 2 help disperse some of the fog that was confusing the media and political worlds recently. For example, why had Israel Hayom started to display signs of tentative independence with regard to Netanyahu and his wife? You won’t find lovely pictures of Sara in the paper as frequently as in the past. The diplomatic reporter, Shlomo Cesana, has been allowed to tweet whatever he chooses against the Netanyahus without suffering any consequences. One might now ask: Did the paper’s owner, casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, learn of the Netanyahu-Mozes conversations, and was this his way of expressing displeasure?

Moreover, during one of his recent visits to Israel, Adelson met with two of Netanyahu’s greatest rivals, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, and MK Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid. Apparently those meetings, which Netanyahu knew about, were also a demonstration of the patron’s ire with his protégé. (Bennett refused to comment and Lapid’s office didn’t bother to return calls.)

At the same time, there were those who have been wondering why Yedioth Ahronoth and its Ynet website had markedly softened its aggressive and not-always-ethical line that characterized it during the election campaign. Why had the paper that once led the pack in terms of revelations and scoops and investigative reports of crony capitalism practically stop dealing with them? Does this also have something to do with the secret talks Mozes held with Netanyahu, a sort of confidence-building measure?

Another fascinating question: How many months ago was it that Netanyahu reportedly expressed interest in changing the law to ban recorded conversations that are currently legal, i.e., when one of the parties is doing the recording? Was that strange initiative the result of learning that the recording with Mozes, which was in the possession of his former bureau chief Ari Harow, a suspect in a different case, had reached the police?

The political establishment was thrown for a loop by the news that Mozes was the businessman at the center of the second case, which was ostensibly more weighty than the cigars-and-champagne case that had been dubbed Case 1000. Either they swallowed their tongues, or cats got them. Aside from Meretz head MK Zehava Galon, who condemned both Mozes and Netanyahu, there have been no definitive statements by party heads or other leading political figures. No one wants to start up with the vengeful enterprise known as Yedioth Ahronoth.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit sat for long months on the recording, which was found on Harow’s cell phone, according to Channel 2’s Peleg. Even if there is no indictment in the end, the disgust and revulsion from what was revealed yesterday will be with us for a long time.