Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked a leading newspaper owner for help in denting the popularity of Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, whom he views as a rival for leadership of Israel’s political right.
Netanyahu is said to have made the request of Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes ahead of the 2015 Knesset elections, the Haaretz daily reported.
The request, to which Mozes apparently agreed, was reportedly made during a series of recorded conversations between the two men. The recordings now serve as the basis of a criminal investigation against them known as “Case 2000.”
The Haaretz report did not provide any quotes from the recording.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
Case 2000 is focused on an alleged quid pro quo deal made between Netanyahu and Mozes, in which the prime minister is said to have promised Mozes — long considered one of the prime minister’s fiercest media critics — that he would advance legislation to reduce the circulation of Yedioth’s main commercial rival, the freebie Israel Hayom, in exchange for friendlier coverage from Yedioth.
According to Thursday’s report in Haaretz, in exchange for passing the law that would undercut Israel Hayom, Mozes agreed to Netanyahu’s request to provide negative coverage of the prime minister’s political rivals, in particular Bennett.
At the time, Netanyahu was locked in a fierce competition with Bennett for the support of right-wing voters ahead of the March 2015 Knesset elections.
In light of Netanyahu’s request, Mozes is said to have drawn the attention of the prime minister to a recent negative headline on Yedioth’s Ynet news site as proof of his goodwill, which reported that only 39 of 700 day school centers for preschoolers promised by then-economy minister Bennett were built.
Bennett was considered to enjoy favorable coverage from Yedioth and was accused by Israel Hayom of “being in the service of Noni Mozes” for supporting the legislation discussed by Netanyahu and Mozes to weaken the free daily.
However, just before the 2015 elections he published a Facebook post, warning of what he called an upcoming “media campaign of slander and lies against Jewish Home in general, and me in particular.”
It is unclear what prompted Bennett’s post and what, if anything, he knew about the alleged quid pro quo deal.
Both Netanyahu and Mozes having denied any wrongdoing in the case and no agreement between them on favorable coverage for Netanyahu was ever implemented.
In response to the Haaretz report, a spokesman for Netanyahu told the daily “there will being nothing because there is nothing,” a mantra Netanyahu and his circle have frequently repeated in response to these and other allegations against him.
An unnamed Jewish Home official said following the report’s publication that the party was left with a “feeling of disgust” that Netanyahu reportedly sought “to harm Bennett.”
“We are astounded that at the height of an alliance [with Bennett, Netanyahu] went and did this,” Channel 2 quoted the source as saying.
Since news of the investigation first broke in January, Mozes has been questioned under caution by police on at least four occasions, while Netanyahu was most recently questioned by police over the affair earlier this month.
Both Netanyahu and Mozes are expected to be again questioned by police multiple times as part of the investigation, which is reportedly expected to go on for some time.
According to Haaretz, police are also seeking to question a number of individuals living overseas as part of the investigation, among them American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is behind Israel Hayom and is considered a staunch supporter of the prime minister.
In addition to Case 2000, Netanyahu is also a suspect in another criminal investigation known as Case 1000.
Case 1000 revolves around alleged illicit gifts given to Netanyahu and his family from billionaire benefactors, most notably hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne said to have been given to the prime minister and his wife Sara by Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.
Netanyahu and his wife are said to have denied that receiving the gifts constituted a criminal offense, claiming the value of the items was significantly lower than reported and that they were mere “trifles” exchanged between close friends.
Last month police said the Case 1000 investigation would likely lead to a recommendation to indict Netanyahu. Officials said they were looking at two options: accusing the premier of breach of trust only, or adding the more serious charge of accepting a bribe.
The Case 1000 investigation is also expected to last for some time, Haaretz reported Thursday, despite previous reports that it was near to wrapping up.