In the past year, law enforcement officials have been focused on investigating the largest bribes that politicians have received over the past decade from major business investors. Over the years, some tycoons have related to media outlets as if they were pawns in a bigger game, a game worth hundreds of millions. “What interests me is making money,” Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes said frankly, speaking to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mozes, like another business figure, Nochi Dankner, in his brief spree with the Maariv newspaper, and like the Nimrodi family before him at Maariv and just like Bezeq’s Shaul Elovitch at the company’s Walla news website, viewed some of the journalists who worked under him as menial labor, personnel at the bottom of the employment ladder who could be used as he saw fit: to censor articles and investigative reports, to push significant stories to the margins, to harm their profession, to fire the journalists if they didn’t comply or, in extreme cases, even to hint that they write vindictive stories about those who stood between them and their business profits – whether it was a regulator, a politician or a journalist who has been critical.
Some of these tycoons handed out generous perks while trampling on freedom of the press, a profession that they genuinely abhor. Now is the time to stop using misleading terminology such as “positive coverage” or “sympathetic coverage” or even “indulgent coverage.”
Reality needs to be called what it is. Systematically skewing coverage and providing a false picture of reality to the public constitutes a financial benefit on a huge scale. When a senior politician gets a series of flattering articles from a publisher, it’s worth a lot more to the politician than a box of cigars or a suitcase of cash to finance primary election activists. When a publisher censors an investigation of the truth about a politician, sometimes the publisher is sparing him the end of his career, and in the process is paying him a bribe worth more to him than it would be to transfer a million dollars into the politician’s son’s secret bank account in an island tax haven.
And when the politician, for his part, promises to compensate the tycoon by passing legislation or furthering the businessman’s huge financial interests, he is consummating the bribery deal. The harm to the public interest in such a case is immeasurably more severe than when a developer builds a monstrosity of a real estate project on a green hilltop in Jerusalem, or a company gets help to win a bid from the politician’s government ministry. Skewing news coverage represents a financial benefit par excellence for any politician and is also apparently the largest benefit there is in the interior world of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In late 2014, on the eve of the 2015 Knesset elections, Netanyahu had two media outlets at his disposal – the Israel Hayom daily and the Walla news website. But he didn’t make do with them, and tried to assert effective control over a third major media entity. The candidates for that were two hostile media outlets: Channel 10, which, with the help of investigative reporting by Raviv Drucker and the critical line the station took from the time it went on the air, became his nemesis; and Arnon Mozes’ Yedioth Ahronoth daily, which for years had been hounding him.
Netanyahu devoted excess energy in trying to conquer Yedioth or Channel 10, and along the way, according to the suspicions, he crossed every red line. Just imagine what would have happened if the prime minister had been successful in commanding the influence of another media stronghold and in the process effectively silenced criticism of him from more than half of Israel’s media outlets. Under the circumstances, the man who for decades preached about a multiplicity of opinion and pluralism would have imprinted the country with its first signs of tyranny.
Anyone who doesn’t understand this and believes that no criminal dimension should be attributed to the give-and-take relationships that Netanyahu conducted with Mozes and Elovitch – as if it were some common banter between politicians and media people – doesn’t understand a thing. A comparison between systematically skewing media coverage for benefits worth hundreds of millions, and the promise to a politician who leaked information to use a flattering picture, is not only outrageous but baseless.
It’s reasonable to assume that law enforcement authorities will not find encrypted bank accounts of Netanyahu in the Cayman Islands. The chances that he would trip himself up in a deal involving the country’s natural gas monopoly in return for a cash bribe range from negligible to impossible. The prime minister is more cautious and considered than several of his predecessors, and he can be believed when he says that the survival of his administration is more important to him than cash, and that if he had quit politics he would have been very wealthy. In his vast experience, his media presence is the condition necessary for the fulfillment of his sole goal – staying in office.
In the relationship with Bezeq’s Elovitch that is currently being probed, Netanyahu agreed to forgo a fundamental principle of his political thought to attain a longed-for benefit. According to the suspicions, he took a series of governmental steps himself or through emissaries to solidify Bezeq’s standing as a monopoly, and to shower it with governmental gestures worth hundreds of millions of shekels. Along the way, he acted against the public interest and deprived citizens at large of a substantial reduction in their monthly expenses when he put a halt to reforms in the landline telephone service market, and when he deprived journalists of their professional freedom.
He and his associates received hundreds of benefits from the country’s leading news website, seen by millions of Israelis. These benefits were in all probability not just “positive coverage” but also influence on the hiring of journalists on the website, and blatant attempts to influence the choice of the site’s editor in chief.
Over many years, Walla’s CEO, Ilan Yeshua, served as owner Shaul Elovitch’s commissar and the person carrying out his orders. But Yeshua, the commercial manager responsible for the huge deal involving the sale of the Yad2 website, came to his senses at some point and understood that the continued bribery policy could cost him dearly. The first time was when he tried to stop Elovitch after a Haaretz investigative report in October 2015. Three months later, he broke. It came in the aftermath of the labor court victory by Meni Naftali, the former maintenance supervisor at the Prime Minister’s Residence, and the tough words that judges had for the prime minister’s wife, Sara.
In late 2016, Yeshua came to his senses again. To the chagrin of those closest to Netanyahu, he appointed Aviram Elad as chief editor and fought to protect the appointment and Walla’s editorial independence in the face of tough pressure.
Yeshua, like some of his media colleagues, was caught in the middle of a constellation of interests involving money, media and politics, until he sought to extricate himself. And cutting this Gordian knot requires legal and moral leadership.
Case 2000 and Case 4000 are the great opportunity for law enforcement, led by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, to save Israel’s freedom of the press. When the explosive tapes of conversations between Netanyahu and Mozes landed on Mendelblit’s desk, he indeed saw that Mozes was clearly offering the prime minister a bribe, but he hesitated over whether there was a basis to investigate the prime minister under caution, meaning as a criminal suspect.
People who have spoken to Mendelblit recently say that in the Netanyahu-Elovitch-Bezeq-Walla web of relationships, he sees the clear potential of turning it into a criminal case revealing a story of several people with power and money who made a secret connection. The success of their connection represents a direct loss to everyone else.
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