Although there is clearly not space here for a detailed critique of the various allegations of bribery in office made against Benjamin Netanyahu, it is worth examining Case 2000, one of the two which the police have referred to Attorney-General Mendelblit for indictment. This is because of all the cases under investigation the core evidence has been extolled as the most compelling, coming as it does from the horse’s mouth, from Netanyahu himself.
The case arises out of secret talks he held with Arnon Mozes, owner of the left-wing daily Yedioth Aharanoth. The paper had long been intensely critical of Netanyahu and enjoyed unrivalled circulation until 2007 when his close friend and ally, the American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, founded Israel Hayom. The new daily dedicated itself to carrying a torch for Netanyahu and may have helped to secure his 2009 electoral victory.
The key problem for Mozes was that Israel Hayom was free and far outperformed Yedioth in readership numbers. Although it clocked up enormous losses, for as long as Adelson was prepared to sustain them in order to keep his protégé in office, it seriously threatened Yedioth’s profitability.
For the time being Netanyahu enjoyed the upper hand but he may have feared that Adelson would eventually tire of losing money and pull the plug, leaving him without the support of a mass circulation daily. So he talked to Mozes about a possible deal. What if he worked to stem the competition? Would Yedioth moderate its attacks? (To give up criticism altogether and go over to supporting him outright would look too suspicious.)
We know about the talks because Netanyahu had them taped by his chief of staff Ari Harrow and when Harrow was arrested the tapes were seized.
Published extracts feature exchanges about possible legislation to ban or curtail free papers, with Netanyahu vaguely suggesting he could “set up a committee.”
However, the tapes also reveal Netanyahu expressing considerable reservations about whether Adelson would go along with a deal and he was understandably wary of being cold-shouldered by his benefactor.The talks dwindled, the attacks continued unabated and in 2014 Yedioth backed a bill in the Knesset banning free papers.
It was clearly aimed at damaging Israel Hayom although its objective was disguised as the protection of press freedom, supposedly at risk from free papers as a consequence of journalists’ salaries dropping.
Very importantly, any suggestion that Netanyahu was secretly complicit in the legislative process is wholly inconsistent with the widely perceived view reported by Haaretz – an organ which has otherwise been zealously gunning for him – that a key motive behind his decision to call an early election in March 2015 was to kill the bill.
With Israel Hayom dominant and Adelson content to subsidise it, Netanyahu must have asked himself why on earth he should sacrifice its unambiguously favourable coverage for a mere “lowering of [Yedioth’s] hostility from 9.5 to 7.5,” to quote him from the tapes.
Some vague, meandering, intermittent and ultimately abortive chat about diverse possibilities which never crystallised into any kind of a concrete proposal, let alone agreement, constitutes neither bribery or an attempt to bribe.