Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going down, to judge by the weekend press. Subject to a hearing before the attorney general, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister seems fated to face trial on charges ranging from breach of trust to corruption, in practice or in intent. One of the main cases against Netanyahu involves negotiating with Arnon Mozes, owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth group and the most powerful news publisher in Israel. Netanyahu wanted favorable coverage. In exchange, Arnon wanted Netanyahu to help hamstring a bitter rival: Israel Hayom, which by being a free newspaper, had bitten badly into Yedioth’s market share.
The good news is that the slime is slithering to the surface. But will indictments against Netanyahu and Mozes really change the subterranean system of illicit, back-scratchy ties between big money and government? The bad news is, probably not.
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Here are the facts. In a document titled “Suspicions against Benjamin Netanyahu,” Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit writes that Netanyahu and Mozes each wanted something that the other could give.
Netanyahu and Mozes held three series of meetings from 2008 to 2014, Mendelblit wrote; all dealt with how Yedioth would cover Netanyahu.
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“You,” Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit wrote to Netanyahu, “wanted to advance coverage of yourself and your family in the Yedioth Ahronoth group, especially during the election period, and knew that Mozes had material influence over the content in Yedioth Ahronoth and on Ynet” (the popular Yedioth news website).
Mozes for his part wanted Netanyahu to help restore Yedioth Ahronoth’s profitability by enacting legislation that would clip Israel Hayom’s wings.
Yedioth had once been defined as a monopoly in Israel’s newspaper world. It lost that status because of Israel Hayom, but it remains heavilyinfluential. Arnon “Noni” Mozes is the one who decides how his group will portray politicians; who gets “protected” and who doesn’t.
Ahead of the 20th Knesset election, Netanyahu secretly taped a meeting at which Mozes offered tailored coverage in Yedioth Ahronoth in exchange for Netanyahu pushing a bill that would hamper Israel Hayom. That tape reached the police through a state witness. “You didn’t reject Mozes’ offer,” Mendelblit wrote.
Netanyahu then pretended to be making moves to restrict Israel Hayom’s circulation; Mozes was unsatisfied, but “you tried to persuade him to not publish negative items about you anyway,” the attorney general wrote.
Hotline to the editor in chief
Mozes habitually used the editors and reporters working for him to advance his business interests, and offered to create a direct line between Netanyahu and the editors of Yedioth and Ynet, so he could influence specific items. He also offered to hire writers Netanyahu chose.
So far, none of this is news. Some reporters have been bemoaning Mozes’ utilization of Yedioth Ahronoth to advance his personal agenda for years. In 2008 Doron Glazer, today the editor of rival paper Maariv, accused Mozes of having a “clear editorial line in favor of government corruption.
How did this waltz between Mozes and Netanyahu begin? Through none other than the billionaire arms dealer-turned-Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. Mendelblit describes how over the years Netanyahu asked Milchan to urge Mozes not to publish negative stories about the prime minister and his family.
No details have ever been publicized about how the Israeli government chose Milchan to handle international weapons trading. But he and Mozes evidently have something in common: relative to Netanyahu, they had and have a position of strength.
It seems Milchan induced Netanyahu to add him to official delegations; he had a tax exemption for expats extended to 10 years (the so-called “Milchan law”); he asked Netanyahu to change regulations in order to resolve problems with his acquisition of an Israeli television production company and also, to intervene and arrange his U.S. visa.
“On one occasion in which Milchan asked for your help with the visa, he came to the prime minister’s residence and waited for you there. When you arrived, with your chief of staff at the time, Ari Harow, Milchan told you he had brought a box of cigars for you and a box of Champagne for your wife, and asked you to call the secretary of state John Kerry about your visa problem. You did…”
Another political figure with ties with Milchan is Yair Lapid, who says he worked for him once, setting up a TV company in Los Angeles for “a few months, more than 20 years ago,” Lapid wrote on Facebook, adding that they remain friends. “Arnon is a person it’s easy to remain friends with,” Lapid added.
Mozes is the boss of the local media scene. Milchan is a billionaire who meddles in Israeli politics, handles delicate missions, hands out candy – and wants favors in return.
Both Mozes and Milchan are major players in political corruption yet neither seem likely to be going anywhere.
On Thursday night, after the Mendelblit announcement that subject to a hearing, Netanyahu would face charges on the cases dubbed 1000, 2000 and 4000, the opposition rose to its feet as one, and called for the prime minister to resign. Some bemoaned the alleged corruption; some loudly vowed never to sit in a coalition with him. Nary a peep was heard about Noni Mozes.
Even though the attorney general said he would pursue charges against Mozes too, nobody in the political scene so much as murmured (or tweeted) about Mozes’ share in the affair.
Nobody mentioned that Ynet, the most influential website in Israel, viewed by about 25% of Israelis every day, is de facto also involved in corruption and thuggish conduct.
This silence is what leads to the suspicion that the politicians may come and go, but the system is here to stay.
Mozes is the most important political player in 30 years, more than Netanyahu himself. Mozes was making similar deals with businessmen, ministers and prime ministers before Netanyahu came to power.
As a politician, Netanyahu faces opposition: Sometimes he wins and sometimes he loses, as he did for instance to Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. For years, Mozes had no opposition or, in his case, competition. Now he has, in the form of Israel Hayom, but even now Yedioth Ahronoth – and even more so, Ynet – determine the fate of politicians, and politicians fear Mozes. Just this week Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay was asked about Mozes on Radio 102. Gabbay said: “If he were a public figure, he’d have to go, but he isn’t a public figure.” Maybe Mozes isn’t an elected figure, but does Gabbay really believe that the biggest media baron in Israel, who sets the agenda and shapes the fate of politicians, isn’t a “public figure”?
When serving as finance minister, Lapid also concealed meeting with Mozes, three times. The meetings were secret: nobody else was in the room. No tapes have come to light but it’s hard to believe these meetings were any more innocent than Netanyahu’s conversations with Mozes. There is apparently good reason why Lapid won’t reveal what went on in those encounters.
The meetings took place right before a parliamentary vote on the so-called “Israel Hayom” bill, which all Lapid’s party members supported. Netanyahu himself has recounted these facts and asked – rightly – why Lapid hasn’t been grilled about them.
Politicians aren’t the only ones running scared of Noni Mozes. About half the reporters running the campaign against Netanyahu, who now demand his ouster, continue to give Mozes public relations services. Last week Nahum Barnea, the senior Yedioth commentator, wrote that it was not right to use the law to govern relations between politicians and the press. An unhindered flow in the relationship between the press and politicians is key to democracy, he wrote – which serves his boss, and also downgrades the so-called “Case 2000” involving Netanyahu and Mozes into an attempt to slow the flow. They weren’t flowing: They were trying to concoct a corrupt deal.
Nahum Barnea evidently sees no problem with the attorney general accusing his boss of proposing a corrupt deal to the prime minister, again and again. The bribe Mozes was dangling was a thousand times worse than mere filthy lucre. Mozes didn’t try to slip him an envelope with a million dollars cash inside. He offered Netanyahu the foulest deal in the public arena: to steal the mindset of 5 million Israelis and present it to Bibi on a silver platter so he could continue to serve as prime minister.
In Maariv this weekend, Ben Caspit wrote four pages on the Netanyahu scandal while almost entirely ignoring Mozes and Mendelblit’s decision to indict him too, subject to a hearing.
Israel’s politicians are still running fearfully from Noni Mozes and continue to operate in the political arena according to his rules. There is also a hard core of journalists who belong to the Mozes camp and continue to fight his political battles.
So although Netanyahu may have to bow off stage, it seems that neither the politicians nor the press and certainly not big business actually want to change the system. If anything they seem to be embracing it. Lapid has demonstrated that he has the knack for populism (for instance when he went after Knesset member Hanin Zoabi) and incitement for political purposes. Despite the Thursday announcement, Lapid hasn’t stated that he will sever relations with Mozes, Milchan or any other tycoon or donor.
Benny Gantz is a political newcomer who seems content to let Lapid manage their joint list. Other parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu are either coordinated with Mozes and Yedioth Ahronoth, or fear them. The press treats Mozes with kid gloves.
Under these circumstances, it would be naïve to think that anything concrete will change in the rotten relationship between big money and government in Israel, just because a sitting prime minister and the biggest media baron in Israel will face charges, subject to hearings, and may go to jail.