Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's lust for controlling the media is reminiscent of authoritarian leaders. Netanyahu, who described himself at the end of last week as a victim of "a terror attack against democracy" following Channel 12 News journalist Guy Peleg's reports on his alleged corruption, made use of regulatory tools in recent years to take over more and more private media outposts and settle scores with those he thought had hurt him. (For the latest election polls – click here)
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit understood this. He said once that if anyone had offered Netanyahu a choice between money and media biased in his favor, he would prefer the latter without hesitation. So why did Mendelblit allow a man suspected of taking bribery from a media outlet to continue meddling with the media?
The attorney general didn't take the required step to prevent Netanyahu from meddling with media affairs back in January 2017, when the investigation into the so-called Case 2000 became public. Mendelblit, who tends to avoid restricting government power whenever possible, enabled Netanyahu to continue dealing with media issues, on condition that his intervention was not tainted with conflict of interests – i.e. unrelated to Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq and Yes – and had no bearing on his friends – i.e. Arnon Milchan. Once it became clear that Netanyahu had negotiated legislation moves with Arnon Mozes, a court appeal was submitted to remove him from his post as communications minister.
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The prime minister's office realized there was a good chance the court would accept the appeal, and Netanayhu gave up the portfolio. But a few weeks later, it turned out this move was misleading. Netanyahu pounced on the Public Broadcasting Corporation with bare fists. His motive seemed transparent: he feared the corporation wouldn't provide him with considerate coverage, wouldn't automatically accept his version of events and wouldn't employ journalists close to him.
Mendelblit didn't tell Netanyahu what was self-evident: that anyone suspected of attempting to take bribery from a media outlet cannot have dealings with it until the suspicions against him are cleared up.
Instead, the attorney general took part in mediation meetings between Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who protected the corporation and even gave a green light to an unnecessary compromise that was scrapped and harshly blasted by the Supreme Court. The improper permit Netanyahu received from Mendelblit enabled him to use Ayoub Kara as a puppet to prepare the news broadcasts on Channel 20 on his behalf, as Sefi Ovadia revealed this week on Channel 13 News.
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Netanyahu was the last person who should have exercised government authority to help a channel that supports and favors him. He certainly shouldn't have urged Kara to abolish the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, which oversees Yes, even if Elovitch's interests weren't his main concern at the moment.
The sensational revelations in the Netanyahu-Kara recordings are the tip of the iceberg. This week Haaretz exposed a recording in which Kara complained of the heavy pressure exerted on him to prevent the merger of Reshet with Channel 10 and force the latter, which was Netanyahu's nemesis for years, into receivership.
Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich, whom Kara had appointed chair of the Second Authority for Television and Radio, worked energetically to prevent the merger. Communications Ministry officials wrote a harshly worded report on Shmalov-Berkovich's conduct, which forced the minister in charge not to extend her tenure.
But the pressures on Kara had the opposite effect. He called those who pressured him "Mafia, criminals." He refused to disclose the identities of the people who were pressuring him and named only Avraham Natan, a man of influence in the halls of power, who was Keshet chairman and familiar with the nuances of regulation in the media market.
Kara said Natan had told him that if he didn't leave Shmalov-Berkovich in her post he would be "wiped out" of the Knesset. Natan denies this, but in recent months Kara told political figures that he felt the threat against him had been carried out. In another conversation, he said his relations with Netanyahu had cooled off considerably since he decided to act according to the law.
"I told people who came to me, I'm not going to be investigated because of you," Kara says in the recording.
When people he talked to suggested he speak out about the circle of insanity he was in, Kara said, referring to the prime minister's environment: "You don't seem to understand who you're dealing with. What I went through with them. They're all criminals. They have all the means, they have experience. I'm alone against them."
Now the ball is back in Mendelblit's court. The attorney general must investigate whether the former communications minister was indeed under pressure that allegedly consisted of threats and blackmail.
Mendelblit must find out whether Netanyahu or anyone in his close environment was involved in an attempt to shut down Channel 10 and prevent the merger with Reshet. The prime minister had been banned from touching anything pertaining to the channel, because his friend and benefactor Milchan was a shareholder in it. Mendelblit's clear inclination is to avoid launching additional probes that could, in a far-reaching scenario, lead to the prime minister. He fears that they would hold up the indictments in the pending cases against Netanyahu. But it is doubtful whether this reasoning will stand up against the testimony of a former minister complaining of a blackmail attempt.
In a conversation recorded at the end of 2016, Iris Elovitch described her efforts to appease Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, after their relationship went sour when Walla appointed as chief editor Aviram Elad, a veteran journalist who had once dared write a critical article about the prime minister and his wife.
She instructed Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua to immediately hire a number of journalists whose names she apparently received from the prime minister's men: Guy Bechor, Erez Tadmor and Shimon Riklin.
Shaul Elovitch, then the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, was also displeased with the Netanyahus. "Sick," he called them on one occasion, and once he wrote in a text message: "Nir Hefetz is as screwed up as his clients."
Yeshua, who for years slanted the coverage in Netanyahu's favor, complained to Iris Elovitch once that he couldn't bring half of the journalists in Israel to Walla. When she asked why, he said "because they don't suit Bibi and Sara."
"You can't criticize him. It's forbidden. Anyone who does is either a leftist or has interests or Ilana Dayan's husband works for the New Israel Fund…he can't take any criticism. We see what he does to all the media outlets that criticize him," Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes told police about Netanyahu. Mozes had concocted with Netanyahu the coverage-for-favors deal known as Case 2000.
"A talented man and a crybaby," Maariv publisher Eli Azur called Netanyahu, when he was called to testify in Case 2000. "It doesn't end. At every meeting he cries and cries."
Netanyahu himself complained in one of his interviews with the police: "The internet, television, radio, everything is left, left, left. Ynet and Yedioth Ahronoth are ultra-left. The destructive leftist concentration in Israeli media is dangerous to democracy and to Israel's future."
But ideology is the least of it. Netanyahu also lashed out at any right-wing politician he saw as a threat. "Israel Katz is now an internal enemy," Elovitch once said. And Mozes made it clear to Netanyahu at one of their meetings that "the Bennett matter has been dealt with."
Netanyahu's real motive was getting another "private Bibi newspaper," as Mozes described Israel Hayom in his investigation.