Benjamin Netanyahu, media puppeteer

Benjamin Netanyahu with Donald Trump during Trump's visit to Israel in May 2017. Photo: Amos Ben Gershom GPO/Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs on flickr.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like his friend in the Oval Office, has been trying to control the press that covers him for years. Now, he may be facing corruption charges for it.

Last week, Israeli police handed down indictment recommendations in two corruption cases against Netanyahu, termed Cases 1000 and 2000, for which Netanyahu has been under criminal investigation for over a year. In both cases, police recommend charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Two other cases, 3000 and 4000, are still under investigation. The latter case escalated on Sunday, with the arrest of Netanyahu associates and reports that Netanyahu himself will soon be summoned to testify before authorities. And early on Wednesday, a close confidant of Netanyahu and a key suspect in that case agreed to be a state witness and testify against Netanyahu in exchange for a lighter sentence.

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Two of those cases—Case 2000 and Case 4000—focus on Netanyahu’s attempts to control the Israeli press and sway coverage in his favor. In Case 2000, Netanyahu allegedly offered to limit circulation of Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu daily newspaper owned by his supporter, GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, in exchange for better coverage in its rival paper, which is known to be critical of Netanyahu. In Case 4000, Netanyahu is suspected of offering financial benefits to an Israeli businessman and news publisher in exchange for positive coverage on his popular news website.

Though the international press is already starting to herald the impending fall of Netanyahu, now serving his fourth term as prime minister, it’s far from certain these cases will actually result in his political demise. Police indictment recommendations don’t always lead to formal indictment. And even if Netanyahu is ultimately indicted, Israeli law does not require him to step down as prime minister.

However, the criminal investigations into his dealings with media outlets already forced Netanyahu to temporarily relinquish his post as Minister of Communications in February 2017. Netanyahu has blamed the press for his problems throughout the past year, during which he’s been at the center of headlines due to the corruption investigations.

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At a rally in Tel Aviv in August, he told his supporters, “the left and the media—and they are the same thing,” are engaged in “an unprecedented, obsessive witch hunt against me and against my family, with the goal of achieving a coup against the government. Their aim is to put false nonstop pressure on the legal system to get an indictment at any price, without any connection to the truth, without any connection to justice.”

Here’s the background on both cases:

 

In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of conducting a quid-pro-quo deal with Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the publisher of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s second most popular newspaper. In recordings of conversations obtained by police from Netanyau’s former aide-turned-state-witness, Netanyahu allegedly offered to weaken rival newspaper Israel Hayom—owned by Adelson, an American billionaire who contributed largely to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—in exchange for more favorable coverage in Yediot Aharonot and its website, Ynet News. Police found the recordings accidentally while searching the home of Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, US-born Ari Harrow, in a separate case against him.

“The left and the media,” Netanyahu said, are engaged in “an unprecedented, obsessive witch hunt against me…”

Options Netanyahu and Mozes discussed reportedly included limiting the circulation of Israel Hayom, discontinuing or shortening its weekend edition in order to encourage people to buy Yediot Aharonot’s weekend edition instead, or reducing the amount of commercial ad space in Israel Hayom. When questioned in the investigation last year, Adelson reportedly told police that Netanyahu had tried to persuade him to drop plans to expand his newspaper’s circulation.

Evidence from the case, which leaked to the Israeli press in January 2017, indicates that Netanyahu initiated the meetings before the 2015 elections. In these conversations, Mozes reportedly promised to do everything in his power to help Netanyahu remain in power “for as long as you want.”

Netanyahu allegedly urged Mozes to suppress a negative story about his son Yair, who sometimes finds himself at the center of cringeworthy headlines. The latest example was this January, when Yair told the son of an Israeli gas tycoon to lend him money for a prostitute during a trip to his favorite strip club. In a recording of the conversation, Yair tells the son of Kobi Maimon, a shareholder in the company that owns one of Israel’s offshore gas fields, “My dad set up 20 billion dollars for your dad, and you’re fighting with me about 400 shekels?”

Yediot, as it’s referred to in Israel, is known to be critical of Netanyahu. Until the founding of Israel Hayom by Adelson in 2007, Yediot was the most widely-read newspaper in Israel. Yet by offering its paper for free, Israel Hayom quickly overtook Yediot in circulation. And, as the property of Adelson, one of the top Republican donors in the US and a close ally of Netanyahu, the paper has come to serve as Netanyahu’s mouthpiece. The paper’s support for Netanyahu—who Israelis refer to as Bibi—is so widely known that Israel Hayom has its own nickname: “Bibi-tone,” a play on words involving the Hebrew word for newspaper, “Eetone.”

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Though Netanyahu has denied editorial influence over Israel Hayom, phone logs secured by Israeli investigative reporter Raviv Drucker suggest otherwise. After a two-year battle over a freedom of information request that ultimately led Israel’s Supreme Court to order Netanyahu to release them, Drucker reported in September 2017 that the phone logs show a clear link between calls Netanyahu held with the paper’s editor and publisher, and the news reports that followed.

Why would Netanyahu offer to weaken the newspaper of his politically influential ally in exchange for better coverage in the newspaper of his rival? Because Israel Hayom, unlike Yediot Aharonot, is not so much a business as it is a political tool.

According to Simon Perry, a professor at Hebrew University’s Institute of Criminology and co-director of the Program in Policing and Homeland Security, “Adelson doesn’t do this for business. He doesn’t make money on Israel Hayom. He loses money on Israel Hayom.” Indeed, a report published last year by Israeli investigative journalist Uri Blau found that Adelson had lost nearly 200 million dollars on Israel Hayom—one Israeli shekel for every printed copy it hands out for free.

“Adelson doesn’t care about Israel Hayom. He cares about Bibi,” says Perry, a former policeman who investigated various Israeli politicians, including the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. If Netanyahu were to carry out that agreement with Mozes, “Adelson would continue to be pro-Bibi, but give out fewer free newspapers,” says Perry, adding, “Israel Hayom will always be on Bibi’s side. That’s the DNA of the paper. And now Yediot would be on his side too, the second biggest newspaper. So it’s a win-win for him.”

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Netanyahu has not denied the facts of this case. After all, the conversations were recorded. However, according to The Jerusalem Post, he claims to have lied in those conversations in order to “expose” Mozes, and directed his aide to record the conversations out of fear that Mozes would try to extort him. According to Perry—who served in the Israeli police for 30 years and counts Israel’s current police commissioner overseeing these investigations as a friend and former student—Netanyahu has also defended himself by arguing that it’s the norm for politicians to engage in tit-for-tat deals with the press.

Yet even if that were acceptable, argues Perry, it’s not a valid argument against allegations of bribery.  “He’s basically saying, ‘I’ve done what many politicians have done before me and will do after me. I will give you scoops and you will give me good coverage,’” Perry says of Netanyahu’s defense. “But the police claim he did not do a deal with Mozes as a newspaper man, but as a businessman who expected to profit from this agreement. This was a bribe deal. Bibi would make sure that Mozes would make more money, and Mozes would give him good coverage. That is a bribe.”

Essentially, Perry says, the decision over whether to actually indict Netanyahu, which is up to the Netanyahu-appointed Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, comes down to two questions: “Is this really normal behavior between a politician and a newspaper man, or a case of bribery between a businessman and the prime minister”? And was Mozes “wearing the hat of a newsman or the hat of a businessman”?

 

In Case 4000, which is still under police investigation and likely will be for months, Netanyahu is also suspected of offering business advantages to a news publisher in return for favorable coverage. On Sunday, Shaul Elovitch and others associated with Netanyahu were arrested on allegations that they had given or received bribes in exchange for positive coverage of Netanyahu and his family. Police suspect that Elovitch—the owner of the Israeli news site Walla, controlling shareholder of the Israeli phone company Bezeq, and a friend of Netanyahu’s—swayed Walla’s coverage in favor of the prime minister in return  for financial benefits for Bezeq.

Following reports of the arrests on Sunday morning, the prime minister’s office released a statement attempting to discredit the media coverage around the corruption charges. “This is another lying claim. The prime minister didn’t act for Elovitch’s benefit, not for favorable coverage and not for anything else,” the statement read. Another statement released later in the day blamed the new developments on pressure from the press. Claiming that the “the air went out of” Cases 1000 and 2000, and that case 3000 was found “to have no air,” the statement read, “The media created intense pressure to fill up a new balloon—Case 4000, which will also lose all of its air.”

 

Part of Netanyahu’s appeal to his right-wing base, in which he is known as “King Bibi,” is his ability to weather every media storm that hits him, and to challenge what he and his supporters call the “leftist media.” Again, this is a trait he shares with Trump—only King Bibi has been mastering the art of this deal far longer in office than Trump. He’s been facing charges of corruption, bribery, and breach of trust since the ‘90s. And like Trump, the hardline conservative Netanyahu has also battled headlines surrounding his scandalous divorces and unfaithful marriages.

And yet, time after time, no matter how hard and messy the press storm is, Netanyahu has managed to emerge clean and dry, while tarnishing the public trust in the press—now, as his very manipulation of the press becomes the main subject of the headlines, Israelis are wondering if King Bibi will manage to sail through yet another storm unharmed.

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This story has been updated to reflect new developments in Case 4000 on Wednesday morning.

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Yardena Schwartz is a freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer based in Tel Aviv. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Foreign Policy, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, CBS News, NBC News, and MSNBC. Previously, Yardena was a producer at NBC News in New York.