This Netanyahu Corruption Case Is the Gravest Threat to Israel’s Democracy

Politicians, media, money and mafia-like conduct: An indictment in Case 2000 may include charges of bribery or breach of trust – but the corruption it represents goes much deeper

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

If an indictment is filed in the coming weeks against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it won’t be the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has become embroiled in criminal proceedings. Just a year and a half ago, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was released after serving 16 months in jail on graft convictions (his original sentence was reduced by one-third). The prime minister before him, Ariel Sharon, fell into a coma just as evidence against him was being consolidated on an equally serious charge, relating to the transfer of millions of dollars to his sons’ bank accounts.

But the charges that could be brought in Case 2000 and Case 4000 will be unprecedented in Israel: This time the objective was not cash, jobs or gifts, but rather favorable press coverage, perhaps combined with hostile coverage of rival media outlets.

The substantial and wide-ranging evidence in Case 4000 (the so-called Bezeq-Walla case), plus the fact that there are two state’s witnesses in that case, have reportedly led top officials in the State Prosecutor’s Office to agree that charges must be filed. The case involves allegations that Netanyahu sought to wield influence over regulators on behalf of Israel's largest telecom company in exchange for biased coverage on the Walla news site. In Case 2000, however, there is no such consensus in the Justice Ministry.

Of the cases pending against Netanyahu, Case 2000 – the affair involving a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between him and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon "Noni" Mozes, in which the prime minister allegedly wanted to weaken the rival Israel Hayom paper in return for favorable coverage in Mozes’ paper – poses the greatest harm to the public interest. Therefore, this case is precedent-setting.

Without diminishing the seriousness of the suspicions in the other cases, with Case 2000 the attorney general has been given the opportunity and the responsibility to thoroughly uproot the ingrained institutionalized corruption underlying media-politics relations in Israel. Of all the cases involving the prime minister, this one is the game-changer.

Muzzling Adelson's newspaper

A biased system, lacking transparency

Not so long ago, the power of the press in Israel was concentrated to an extreme degree in the hands of a single newspaper. Yedioth Ahronoth – the print version and to an even greater extent its online Ynet version – had vast circulation and tremendous influence over the country’s agenda, particularly in the political sphere. The power of the printed paper was dramatically eroded over the last decade after the rival Israel Hayom entered the market, but the Ynet site still enjoys enormous public influence. More than one million people are estimated to view the site or the app daily – percentage-wise, an extraordinarily large proportion of consumers for a single website in a Western democracy.

Clearly, given the influence of the press in general and the predominance of the Yedioth Ahronoth Group, the type of coverage any politician, regulator or public figure in Israel receives from the group can have major consequences. Biased press coverage can be manifested in a number of ways, some visible, some hidden:

1. Ignoring or giving scant attention to the activity of a politician or public figure – this phenomenon is usually hidden from most readers;

2. Offering positive or negative coverage – here, there is a wide range of possibilities: featuring positive or negative content; using headlines and subheads to frame the person's activity; selecting certain images; placing the pieces in prominent or less prominent places in the paper. While the positive or negative nature of articles is fairly obvious to the reader, the way they are framed can be less transparent to the non-professional eye and to anyone who has not observed or compared coverage over a span of time;

3. Positive or negative press about the politician’s rival – similar to the above; and,

4. Gathering negative information about the politician, regulatory official or public figure – with no intention to publish, but rather to use as deterrence – or, by contrast, shelving information and articles that could hurt decision-makers and other figures who are close to the publisher or his editors.

Over the past 20 years, evidence has been gathered from editors and reporters at Yedioth about “blacklists” and “whitelists” of people that publisher Noni Mozes and his editors allegedly marked as individuals who needed to be promoted or harmed, and about investigations that were shelved.

Despite a colossal accumulation of evidence pointing to biased press coverage supporting the interests of the publisher, his associates and editors – the power and strength of the Yedioth Ahronoth Group allowed it to continue operating this way, to continue corrupting the public domain and shaping the picture of reality for millions of Israelis.

And then came Case 2000. For the first time, the public was made aware of a smoking gun: It was given a rare glimpse into Mozes’ method of running Yedioth and determining the coverage it gives, and especially into the kind language, style and culture he demonstrated as the editor responsible for the most important website in the country. The transcripts paint Mozes not as a publisher, editor or journalist, but as someone running a protection organization: a sort of mafia that offers its services to those in positions of power – in this case, the prime minister.

The State Prosecutor’s Office has so far declined to publicize the full transcripts of the conversations between Netanyahu and Mozes. This decision is justified for as long as the investigation is continuing and testimony is being collected, but not at this point in time, when those under investigation already have all the information possessed by the law enforcement authorities.

The public, meanwhile, has a tremendous, almost unprecedented interest in seeing all the relevant transcripts and hearing the full recordings of the prime minister’s conversations with arguably the most powerful man in the media – and possibly in the private sector as well – during the past 30 years.

Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's mass-circulation daily paper, left, and Israel Hayom, the free pro-Netanyahu newspaper owned by American casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson.
Thomas Coex / AFP

Focus on Mozes, economic implications

Naturally, most of the public attention in Case 2000 has been focused on the prime minister. But in many ways, the more significant part of the story is Mozes himself. Israeli prime ministers have always had to contend with a clearly defined opposition with resources and power. Mozes, on the other hand, has never had to face a real public test.

His enormous power has had a chilling effect unmatched by any other public figure in the country. Even today, two years after revelation of the transcripts, you can count on one hand the number of politicians who have been willing to criticize the kind of journalism that came to light in this affair. Of the 120 Knesset members, the vast majority cower before Mozes and his methods.

The paralyzing fear of Mozes showed its effect not just during the final stages of the investigation, ahead of the filing of charges, but also in the initial phases of it. Haaretz investigative reporter Gidi Weitz discovered that the transcripts of the conversations with Mozes “sat” in the safe Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan for seven months before the investigation began. At best, such conduct raises serious doubts about their judgment.

Anyone who reads the transcripts of the investigation can immediately see that there is tremendous value in revealing them to the public and in conducting a thorough, in-depth investigation by the Israel Police. It’s hard to conceive of any other evidentiary material that illuminates a dark corner in the foundations of Israeli democracy in such disturbing fashion.

And Case 2000 also has major economic implications. The value of the return that Noni Mozes was supposed to receive – or possibly received, in part – from Benjamin Netanyahu is estimated at hundreds of millions of shekels. If Israel Hayom had been compelled to switch to a payment model, its circulation would have declined precipitously and it would have lost about 100 million shekels (about $27.4 million) a year in advertising revenue. This amount of government advertising funds would likely have been diverted to Yedioth Ahronoth.

Another possibility that Mozes and Netanyahu discussed was a softened version of the “Israel Hayom law” that would limit the number of advertisements that could appear in such a free newspaper, in order to halt plummeting advertising rates. Such a scenario could have yielded Mozes 25 million shekels a year. The two also discussed diverting 10 million shekels worth of government advertisements from Israel Hayom, which is owned by American tycoon Sheldon Adelson, to Yedioth.

If Israel Hayom really did delay the release of its weekend supplement in 2009 at Netanyahu’s request, as part of a deal with Mozes – the freebie would have lost three million shekels a month as a result.

Favorable coverage

Thus, for in the name of the public interest, it is imperative that Mendelblit make public the entire collection of recordings of conversations between Mozes and Netanyahu, the transcripts of the investigation and the evidentiary material that was collected by the police. Any concealment of these materials enables the preservation of deep pockets of corruption that endanger Israeli democracy.

If so, then why in this case in particular has no clear consensus been reached in the discussions being held by the attorney general? Here are some of the main arguments being made against filing charges in Case 2000, and explanations that show why they don’t hold water.

1. The problem: Entering the political field

The state prosecution is saying that a politician’s consent to advance a law was unacceptable. This is the kind of thing that riles politicians. Where do the lawyers in the State Prosecutor’s Office get off telling publicly elected legislators which laws they can and cannot promote?

But don’t be fooled: The attempt to portray an indictment in Case 2000 as a restriction of the politicians’ freedom of action as legislators is just a smokescreen. According to the material that the police presented to the attorney general and state prosecutor, there is evidence in Case 2000 that Netanyahu agreed to act to advance the Israel Hayom law at the request of Mozes, for the benefit of Mozes and to the detriment of the public.

The prime minister has argued in his defense that he ultimately voted against the law and even brought down the government and went to an election because of it. This is indisputable, but the transcripts of the recordings of Netanyahu and Mozes’ conversations show that at a certain point in time, Netanyahu was prepared to do the exact opposite of what he eventually did. Just as Mozes was prepared “to turn around the ship” of his paper’s coverage for the prime minister's benefit, Netanyahu was prepared to use his tremendous political influence to turn the ship of parliament in Mozes’ direction.

As far as is known, the state prosecutor has solid evidence that Netanyahu not only talked about this, he also took action. Contrary to Netanyahu’s claim that he did not intend to cooperate with Mozes, the police have evidence that the prime minister took steps in his dealings with Sheldon Adelson aimed at weakening the competition the freebie posed to Yedioth; Netanyahu also tried to find foreign investors who would invest in the Yedioth group. And most importantly, he apparently checked with senior MKs from his Likud party whether it would be possible to advance the kind of legislation that Mozes wanted.

Netanyahu did not act as a public servant: He betrayed the public interest. The Basic Law: The Knesset requires an MK to take an oath at the start of his or her tenure, in which the MK vows to do his job “faithfully.” To faithfully serve the public, in other words. Under this oath, the politician may serve an interest group that elected him. He may vote in favor of a law that he does not personally support in order to uphold coalition discipline. A politician may also support a law that he personally opposes as part of a political package deal, which will bring about passage of another law that is more important to him.

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, November 6, 2018.
Motti Milrod

However, if a politician advances a law for reasons unconnected to his job, knowing that the legislation could hurt the public interest, this is a breach of trust. And when a politician advances a law that is against the public interest in return for some form of personal benefit – that is bribery.

2. The problem: Arbitrary enforcement

One argument cited by Netanyahu and his associates is “arbitrary enforcement.” In other words, there are plenty of politicians who dance to Mozes’ tune in return for favorable coverage. So why is the prime minister the one being investigated?

There may well be many corrupt public figures who do Mozes’ bidding. It's simply Netanyahu’s misfortune that his relationship with Mozes is documented in numerous hours of recordings and therefore, unlike with other people, there appears to be a very clear evidentiary basis in his case.

Nor can the standing, personal example and responsibility of the person who holds the office of prime minister be ignored. The argument that this case against Netanyahu should be closed because other public officials receive illicit benefits like biased media coverage is as unfounded as would be a bank CEO accused of major embezzlement, who argues that he should be vindicated since junior bank employees or other bank managers also steal customers’ money.

3. The problem: Mozes’ capabilities

Mozes has his own take on the conversations he had with Netanyahu. According to a Channel 13 News report, Mozes claimed when questioned by police, “I had no intention of substantially changing the paper’s manner of coverage. There was just an attempt to budge Netanyahu from his positions regarding Israel Hayom.” It has also been reported that Mozes claimed he had no ability to influence the paper’s editorial board to alter the nature of the coverage.

American casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, owner of the free daily Israel Hayom, August 19, 2018.
Meged Gozani

The claim that Mozes’ control over Yedioth Ahronoth was restricted in any way is ludicrous, of course. A series of accounts of what has been going on at Yedioth in recent years – some of which have been noted above – paint a clear picture: Mozes had the ability to direct the newspaper coverage to suit his needs. Naturally he did not do this directly, but apparently through his senior editors or through the colleague closest to him, Haim Rosenberg, the paper’s financial, security and purchasing manager, who is quite deeply involved in what goes on at the paper and in compiling the blacklists and whitelists.

The testimony of senior Yedioth employees from those years, particularly former editor-in-chief Ron Yaron, could reveal if and how Mozes relayed instructions to editors.

And if that weren’t enough, Gidi Weitz reported in Haaretz that Mozes already began to fulfill the deal, or at least made a "down payment" to demonstrate the seriousness of his intentions: At a late-night meeting between Mozes and Netanyahu, Mozes showed him a Ynet article critical of then-Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and told him, “The Bennett matter has been handled.” The article apparently dealt with the delayed construction of the day-care centers that Bennett promised to build, and said that the minister’s words were one thing and his actions, another.

4. The problem: The deal was never consummated

The claim made by both Mozes and Netanyahu that they were just kidding around with each other and never meant to carry out any deal is supposedly proven by the actual sequence of events: The Israel Hayom law was ultimately not advanced, and this was ostensibly what led to the breakup of Netanyahu’s government in 2014. See, the two men say: There never was any deal between us.

But the argument that the deal was never ultimately consummated doesn’t hold water. First, an offer of bribery, even if never consummated, still counts as the offense of bribery in every way. Second, Israel Police detectives also summoned for questioning other key political players at that time, such as MKs Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin, as well as Sheldon Adelson himself. If those testimonies did not reinforce the evidentiary picture concerning the start of the implementation of the deal, Case 2000 would have been shelved.

Regardless of what happened in 2014, a similar deal between Mozes and Netanyahu was allegedly realized prior to that. During the conversations between the two of them, as reported by Guy Peleg, Mozes said, “We managed it in 2009. You may have forgotten.” What was Mozes referring to? TheMarker reported in 2016 that Mozes and Netanyahu had a deal prior to the 2009 election: positive coverage in return for postponing the debut of the Israel Hayom weekend supplement that would compete with Yedioth’s “7 Days” weekend supplement. In fact, the launch of the free weekend supplement was delayed for months. In other words, Mozes and Netanyahu had a history of closing deals and implementing them.

Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon "Noni" Mozes, June 26, 2018
Ofer Vaknin

5. The problem: Deal or blackmail?

Why did Netanyahu record his conversations with Mozes? For now, the answer to that question is apparently only known to the attorney general and his staff, and to the state’s witness who had the recordings in his possession, Ari Harow, the prime minister's former aide.

Netanyahu’s argument concerning this is that the recordings were made because the prime minister did not trust Mozes and planned to use the tapes against the publisher. Since the existence of the recordings was made public, Netanyahu has taken every opportunity to note that he publicly opposed the Israel Hayom law.

“Noni Mozes threatened to destroy my family and publish investigative reports about me” – this was one of the defense arguments cited by Netanyahu when he was questioned, according to Channel 13 News. In other words, Netanyahu argued that he had to discuss a deal with Mozes because he was being blackmailed by him.

This is a weak argument. If Netanyahu genuinely feared blackmail, the correct way to act would have been to submit a complaint with the police. As we know, he did not take the recordings to the police, he did not make any complaint and he did not sound very worried about the issue.

If Netanyahu’s version were totally truthful the attorney general would not, in late 2016, have ordered that the preliminary review of Case 2000 become a full criminal investigation. Thus it is clear that the Case 2000 investigation found unequivocal proof that Netanyahu – for a certain period of time, at least – worked to advance Mozes’ interests and was also apparently prepared to change his approach to the Israel Hayom law.

In any event, the last thing the prime minister was doing was promoting the public interest, as is his duty as an elected public servant.

On the factual level, Netanyahu may be correct in alleging that Mozes intended to blackmail him. There have been numerous accounts of blacklists and whitelists, of safes containing potentially damaging investigative reports, and about implied or explicit threats to attack anyone who doesn’t toe the line with Yedioth’s interests.

But precisely for this reason, Case 2000 is an opportunity to fully expose what appears to be mafia-like conduct. For years, the public arena in Israel has been experiencing a reign of fear and intimidation from one man. This was true before Netanyahu came to power and could continue after the Netanyahu era as well. Therefore, Case 2000 is an opportunity to grapple, once and for all, with one of the most disruptive factors in Israeli society.

The police and other professionals who have gathered and analyzed all the evidence in Case 2000 were convinced that an indictment should be filed. Any other decision would not only hurt the public trust in the legal system: It would leave Mozes and his destructive influence on the country’s politics and economics at the center of Israel’s democracy.