Analysis |

Netanyahu-Mozes Recordings Represent a Conspiracy Against Democracy

Israeli democracy must protect itself – including via criminal law when that law is broken – against the danger of a prime minister who is not only above the nation and its citizens, but above criticism

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One of the egregious concessions Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit makes to Benjamin Netanyahu in the draft indictment against the prime minister is his legal position on Netanyahu’s secret conversations with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, which Netanyahu initiated and which took place over a long period. For some reason, Mendelblit didn’t propose charging Netanyahu – unlike Mozes – with bribery, even though by law this crime doesn’t depend on the person offering the bribe actually intending to keep his promise to the recipient.

Moreover, the draft indictment, which came out in February, states unequivocally that Netanyahu didn’t intend to promote the so-called Israel Hayom bill, even though other facts in the draft indictment show that he actually took steps to do so – his conversation with ministers Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin, plus measures to let ministers vote their conscience in the bill’s preliminary reading.

Even in the early stages of their discussions, recordings of which were published in the media Saturday, Netanyahu provided Mozes with benefits in exchange for positive coverage. For instance, he arranged to postpone Israel Hayom’s launch of a weekend edition for about a year.

Yedioth publisher Arnon Mozes following police questioning in 2017.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Netanyahu’s intent to promote the Israel Hayom bill was clearly conditional, and he didn’t intend to commit suicide over it. It was conditional on the feasibility of passing it, thus it wasn’t subject to a rigid timetable, and it was obviously conditional on the consent of Israel Hayom’s owner, Sheldon Adelson; even Mozes couldn’t expect Netanyahu to turn Adelson from a fan into an enemy. Still, there was no good reason for the draft indictment to say that no such intent existed.

In contrast, Mendelblit concluded that Netanyahu’s behavior did raise suspicions of breach of trust, because after Mozes offered him a bribe of inestimable value (positive coverage that would keep him in power), he continued their conversations rather than halting them. Moreover, throughout this time, he pretended that he planned to promote the bill in order to influence coverage in Yedioth and its Ynet website during an election campaign.

Effectively, judging by the draft indictment, this was fraud. And Netanyahu embroiled Levin and Elkin in this web of deception by asking them to look into the feasibility of passing the bill without telling them about his negotiations with Mozes. He also involved his chief of staff, Ari Harow, a civil servant, in all these contemptible actions.

The claim by Netanyahu’s defenders that there was nothing criminal about his conduct is outrageous. The crime took place at the very first stage of this conduct. Imagine that Netanyahu’s communications minister had received a similar offer and merely didn’t report it. Would that not constitute breach of trust, in the most basic sense of violating his fiduciary duty to the public? And that’s before even discussing the way this undermines public trust in government.

The fact that Netanyahu was prime minister makes his conduct even worse, because this is the most important job in Israel’s system of government. Through this game that Mendelblit believes Netanyahu was playing, did the prime minister not embroil himself in a severe conflict of interests that should have stopped him from handling any issues linked to Yedioth, Ynet, Channel 10 television and Israel Hayom, and essentially the whole communications market?

Imagine a senior police officer, prosecutor or judge receiving a similar bribe offer: We’ll give you significant influence over our coverage of you and your rivals and cover you in a way that will ensure your promotion. If such an official behaved as Netanyahu did, or even refrained from reporting the offer, isn’t it clear that this would constitute breach of trust? Would even the most junior civil servant who received even the most “minor” bribe be allowed not to report it?

From left: Culture Minister Miri Regev, Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin at the President's Residence in Sept. 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Dragged into a laundromat

Netanyahu’s defenders must not be allowed to drag our entire system into a laundromat where every stain is cleansed, en route to a swamp where everything is permissible and the loftier the position, the lower the expectations of the person filling it.

Moreover, the greatest crime committed by Mozes and Netanyahu was against Israeli democracy and in what their conversations revealed – their view of ordinary citizens, newspaper readers, as donkeys who can be sold rubbish. Their plan, which they even began carrying out, was to make a mockery of everyone.

According to their plot, the paper’s employees wouldn’t be people suitable for the job, but people chosen by a key subject of the daily’s political coverage, the prime minister, for his own convenience. And what the paper published, as well as the articles’ prominent placement or lack thereof, wouldn’t depend on professional journalism but on dirty deals in which the paper profiteered off its coverage to obtain enormous economic benefits.

Recent claims that the investigations into Netanyahu endanger democracy because they involve the sensitive field of relations between journalists and politicians are utterly false. What endangered democracy was Netanyahu’s systematic effort to obtain what he termed “balanced coverage” for himself, which actually meant immunity from criticism for the prime minister and his family. Israeli democracy must protect itself – including via criminal law when that law is broken – against the danger of a prime minister who is not only above the nation and its citizens, but also above criticism.