Analysis

Three Questions Netanyahu Needs to Answer in Israel Hayom Affair

With his fiery statement in the Knesset last week, the prime minister sounded like he's started drafting his legal defense.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, January 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in the Knesset last week sounded like a summary of his defense in the two criminal cases against him.

The big attention grabber was his cry, “It’s permissible to receive gifts from friends!” He then described the friendship between his family and that of the supplier of cigars and champagne, billionaire Arnon Milchan. The words seemed to be aimed not just at the attorney general but also at Milchan, who might well be a prosecution witness if Netanyahu is indicted.

With regard to the so-called Israel Hayom bill, Netanyahu described how he fought tooth and nail against legislation aimed at harming his personal mouthpiece – which he dubbed “a right-wing newspaper offering a different viewpoint.”

This aggressively loyal message seemed to be aimed at casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whom police are also planning to interview.

The facts tell a different story, though. During the relevant period – the second half of 2014 – Netanyahu didn’t go out of his way to kill the bill. He used neither his prime ministerial prerogatives nor basic procedural measures to shelve the legislation, which threatened to reduce the free newspaper’s mass distribution.

Given the revelation of his taped meetings with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the rival daily Yedioth Ahronoth, and what was said in them, the contradiction between Netanyahu’s recent Knesset speech and what he actually did is noteworthy.

Netanyahu told the Knesset he “vigorously” opposed the 2014 bill by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor, now part of Zionist Union) to force the freebie to charge a nominal purchase fee. As usual, the bill went to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, chaired by then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah, now also part of Zionist Union). She supported it, as did then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and then-Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi).

“Surprisingly,” the panel approved it, Netanyahu told the Knesset. “At this stage, I did everything, made every effort,” to keep it from being sent on to the Knesset. “But after a few months, during which I tried in every way possible to delay its coming to a vote, it reached the plenum. I opposed this with all my might.”

The bill passed by a large majority, with support from both opposition and coalition lawmakers, but especially the latter. “At this stage,” Netanyahu concluded, “when I saw they were undermining me on this issue and also other issues, yes, I dismantled the government.”

But here are a few facts that raise questions about Netanyahu’s story.

Prior to the ministerial committee’s vote, leaders of the governing coalition parties held informal talks on how to handle Cabel’s hot potato, and Netanyahu realized the bill had a majority in the committee.

On the day of the vote, he told Livni that he wouldn’t object if the panel decided to let coalition members vote their conscience on it. And that’s exactly what the committee decided.

Livni and other ministers who supported the bill were convinced that immediately after that vote, Netanyahu would employ a well-known tactic that would let him bury the bill permanently: find some minister to appeal the committee’s decision to the full cabinet. It never entered their heads that the bill would actually reach the plenum when the prime minister had such an effective weapon.

Here’s how it works. Any minister can appeal the legislation panel’s decisions. Once an appeal is filed, coalition members are forbidden to support the bill unless and until the cabinet decides otherwise. The only person with the power to bring the appeal to a vote in the cabinet is the prime minister. Thus, as long as he doesn’t do so, coalition members are obligated to oppose the bill in the Knesset.

Many bills against which appeals have been filed have been gathering dust for years.

All Netanyahu had to do was ask one minister from his own Likud party to file an appeal, and the story would have ended right there. Cabel wouldn’t have bothered bringing the bill to a vote, since he’d know it lacked a majority. And if he had brought it to a vote, it would have been defeated.

But Netanyahu, for reasons of his own – which, in light of his talks with Mozes, take on a different hue – chose not to do so.

No appeal was filed, and on November 12, shortly before the bill came up for a vote in the Knesset, the cabinet secretary even published an official statement allowing ministers to vote their conscience. Livni, Lapid, Lieberman and members of their parties subsequently voted for the bill.

Netanyahu was photographed at the time racing to his seat to vote against it. And when the results of the vote were announced, he muttered, “A disgrace, a disgrace” (though it couldn’t have been a surprise, once he had allowed coalition members to vote their conscience).

Three weeks later, he fired Livni and Lapid, claiming they had staged a “putsch” by trying to form a new government without him.

Given this chain of events, which contradicts the story Netanyahu told the Knesset last week, one has to ask:

1. What did Netanyahu really plan to do with Israel Hayom while he was negotiating over its fate with Mozes? Was he merely pretending to fight the bill, without actually doing so, to show Mozes he was serious?

2. What happened in the three weeks between the vote and his dismantling of the government? Did the negotiations with Mozes continue? Did Adelson, who was surely furious, force the prime minister to drag the country into elections out of wounded pride or financial interests?

3. Why, in the current government’s coalition agreements, did Netanyahu include a clause requiring all his partners to obey the “communication minister’s” decisions – i.e. his own – on all key issues, when a few months earlier he had let them vote their conscience on an issue that ostensibly mattered to him greatly?