In his relentless attacks on the media and on the Israeli left, many statements recently released by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu featured a mention of his arch-rival Arnon “Noni” Mozes as the ostensible architect of nefarious designs to oust him from power.
Which is what made Sunday’s revelations that police possess a recording of Netanyahu and Mozes discussing a quid pro quo deal an absolute political bombshell.
According to the reports of their conversation, the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth empire discussed cutting back on critical coverage of the premier in return for Netanyahu seeing to it that the weekend edition of the Sheldon Adelson-owned free daily Israel Hayom, a Yedioth competitor that has eaten into its revenues, was curtailed.
The transcript of the 2014 conversation has not been made public and it appears no agreement went ahead: Israel Hayom continues to publish a weekend edition, and Yedioth has not ceased its critical coverage of the prime minister.
But the reports underline the problematic ties between some of Israel’s politicians and much of the local media, with Yedioth in particular having a history of receiving generous payment from government ministries in exchange for favorable coverage of their pet projects.
And if confirmed, the conversation could also mark the first time Netanyahu has admitted to wielding influence over Israel Hayom, his ostensible mouthpiece, which rarely offers anything but positive coverage of the prime minister. He has always denied having any control there.
It is unclear, for now, whether the conversation constitutes a criminal offense — the hatching of an illicit quid-pro-quo — as has been suggested by some in the Hebrew press. But the nature of Netanyahu’s sway over Israel’s most-read daily — the question of whether Israel Hayom should be regarded as an actual asset of Netanyahu’s — may prove central when the attorney-general considers if criminal charges are necessitated in the affair.
Netanyahu vs. Mozes: The war of the words
As journalists in the United States fret over President-elect Donald Trump’s criticism of the media, Israelis are well-acquainted with the phenomenon, which dates back some 20 years.
The bad blood between Mozes and Netanyahu dates back to 1996, when Yedioth Ahronoth published a report alleging that Sara Netanyahu had hurled shoes at an employee in a fit of anger, prompting Netanyahu to announce he was unsubscribing from Israel’s most profitable paper, according to TheMarker business daily.
That mutual hostility deepened with the launch of the free, pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily in 2007, which cut deeply into Yedioth’s readership, and as the Mozes-owned daily continued to highlight allegations of bad behavior by the premier’s wife.
Ahead of the 2015 elections, Netanyahu stepped up his personal attacks on Mozes, accusing him of colluding with the center-left Zionist Union party and orchestrating a campaign to remove him from power.
“The time has come to put things on the table,” Netanyahu wrote in Hebrew on Facebook in February 2015, a month before the election. “The main source behind the wave of slander against me and against my wife is Noni Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth and Ynet [Yedioth’s online portal].”
“These two platforms [Yedioth and Ynet] are initiating and organizing ridiculous, false, and provocative smears against me and against my wife as part of a media campaign to replace the Likud government with a left-wing government,” the prime minister wrote.
Following his victory, Netanyahu kept up the accusations against Mozes, aligning the media mogul with the Israeli left and turning the “Mozes” charge into something of a Likud political slogan. In his attempts to close down the not-yet-launched new public broadcaster, sources in the Likud charged the new entity “has turned into a broadcaster for Noni Mozes and the left.”
In a scathing attack on investigative journalist Ilana Dayan, which the deadpan reporter read aloud for six minutes on her “Uvda” show in November to much acclaim, Netanyahu’s office also accused her of colluding with Mozes.
Netanyahu and Israel Hayom
The Netanyahu-Mozes recording may also shed light on a longstanding, and potentially legally relevant, mystery: How much direct influence does Netanyahu have over Israel Hayom?
In an affidavit submitted to Israel’s Central Elections Committee in February 2015, Netanyahu said he “does not have, and has never had, any ties of control or any other organizational ties, in any form, with Israel Hayom, or with newspaper staff or journalists writing for it, that would influence the paper’s editorial considerations or its contents.”
Shacher Ben-Meir, an attorney, on Sunday sent a letter to the attorney general asking him to investigate whether Netanyahu had lied on the affidavit, in light of the recording, the 7th Eye media watchdog reported.
In October 2016, the State Comptroller rejected allegations that Israel Hayom should be considered political campaign material for Netanyahu and the Likud party.
Both opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni on Monday said the recordings prove Israel Hayom “was and is run by Benjamin Netanyahu,” according to Herzog.
“This is what we said during the election and we were rebuffed with the claim that direct ties between them have not been proved,” Herzog said at the weekly Zionist Union faction meeting. “So here, this time it’s been proven and the connection must be exposed.”
Cozying up to Yedioth
Perhaps the least surprising revelation in the affair was that Yedioth — and its wildly popular Ynet website — was amenable to providing favorable coverage in exchange for financial favors. After all, the paper and website have been known for accepting extravagant fees to promote the agenda of various politicians, government ministries, and private companies in the form of “native” content.
Israeli politicians are also said to keep close ties to the paper and its owner in a bid to curry favor and positive coverage of their activities. The eyebrow-raising silence by politicians in response to Sunday’s reports (with the exception of several Meretz MKs) appeared to corroborate these rumors.
Though the reports invited criticism of Netanyahu after revealing his apparent two-faced approach to Mozes and the Israeli media, Herzog and Livni did not comment on Sunday. On Monday, breaking their silence, both condemned Netanyahu’s ties with Israel Hayom but still refrained from criticizing the meeting with Mozes. Yesh Atid leader and former journalist Yair Lapid has not addressed the issue. Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich, who rarely shies away from criticizing Netanyahu, was uncharacteristically tight-lipped, as were dozens of other opposition lawmakers.
In 2016, the Freedom House NGO downgraded Israel’s freedom of the press ranking to “partly free” over the existence of Israel Hayom, Netanyahu’s control over the Communications Ministry, and the rise of native advertising on websites such as Ynet.
“The most-viewed news website in Israel, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ynet, is also the site that contains the most native advertising, and commercial firms even fund some of its journalists’ salaries directly,” the report said. “Advertisers in Israel include not only private companies, but also government ministries, state agencies, and nonprofit organizations that pay millions of shekels to websites, newspapers, and commercial television channels to get their messages out, with the paid nature of the content often obscured. This takes place even though under existing law, branded content is forbidden on commercial television.”
The 7th Eye media watchdog in 2015 ranked Ynet as the website most “polluted” by native advertising, with a 2.4/7 ranking. Trailing Ynet, the Globes business daily, Channel 2’s Mako website, and the Walla news website also fared poorly in this regard, with a 3.2/7 score for all. Over the past five years, the media watchdog has produced documents showing Ynet received millions from organizations, including Coca-Cola and Bank Hapoalim, and various government ministries to cover certain issues and events — favorably.
The Marker Hebrew-language daily in April reported that Ynet received some NIS 3 million ($780,000) for every project it produced, under the guise of news coverage, for Bank Hapoalim. It said the Histadrut labor union paid Ynet NIS 1 million to cover its May 1 events, and noted the website has a history of dealings with the Environmental Protection Ministry, Science Ministry, and Education Ministry.
The editor of Yedioth said in a statement on Sunday evening that he had no idea of the Netanyahu-Mozes discussion, and that Yedioth is an honest and professional newspaper. All material published by Yedioth, Ron Yaron insisted, meets “journalistic standards” and appears for proper professional reasons.