A former Israeli mayor was convicted Monday of bribery, breach of trust and money laundering, but was cleared of trying to skew news coverage.
The verdict in the case of Itamar Shimoni at the Tel Aviv District Court was immediately seized upon by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's legal team – who himself is accused of receiving favorable coverage in return for political or regulatory benefits.
"It is not a coincidence that never in the legal history of democracies has there been a case that determined that favorable coverage is a bribe," Netanyahu's attorneys said in a statement. "Such a decision would fatally harm the freedom of the press, which is one of the foundations of democracy."
The Tel Aviv District Court said that the prosecution had not tied adulatory coverage in a local paper, Kol Ashkelon, or the purchase and shutdown of a new website, Ashkelon 10, with graft, and vindicated Itamar Shimoni on that count by virtue of reasonable doubt.
Judge Limor Margolin-Yehidi did find Shimoni guilty of promoting two projects for the contractor Yoel Davidi in exchange for 150,000 shekels, ostensibly paid as a brokerage fee to the ex-mayor’s brother. Shimoni was also found guilty of concealing the nature of his relationship with Davidi, who also owned Kol Ashkelon.
Ashkelon 10's coverage of Shimoni had been negative, but then Davidi bought it for 100,000 shekels, and closed it down that very same day. While the prosecution considered that to be graft, the court disagreed.
The prosecution asked the court to sentence Shimoni to prison time. The former mayor for his part said he would appeal his conviction.
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Netanyahu stands accused of fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three criminal cases. Case 4000, deals with a supposed quid-pro-quo with media mogul Shaul Elovitch. Case 2000 is centered around Netanyahu's talks with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes to win favorable news coverage in exchange for promoting a bill that would have quashed the daily's main competitor.