New leaks from conversations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes reveal the prime minister discussing which journalists are unacceptably hostile to him, and the newspaper mogul pondering how to marginalize them, in the latest dramatic developments in a corruption investigation that threatens Netanyahu’s hold on power.
The latest in a series of leaks, reported on Israel’s Channel 2 news on Saturday night, featured the two men deep in detailed conversations about how to reduce Yedioth’s hostility to Netanyahu in order to help ensure that the prime minister retains power.
Netanyahu and Mozes held several face-to-face conversations in 2014 on an alleged deal under which Yedioth would scale back its critical coverage of the prime minister in return for Netanyahu ensuring legislation that would reduce the impact of Yedioth’s competitor, Sheldon Adelson’s pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom free daily.
Netanyahu is said to have told police investigators, when questioned under caution, that he recorded the conversations because he believed Mozes was trying to extort him. He never had so much as “half an intention” of implementing any such deal, Channel 2 on Saturday quoted Netanyahu as insisting.
But the nature of the conversations, the TV report said, make it clear that Netanyahu was negotiating entirely “practically,” in a “pleasant atmosphere,” with the media mogul.
Excerpts from transcripts of the conversations leaked on Saturday night featured Netanyahu declaring that what he expects under the deal with Yedioth is “moderation” in its coverage of him, “to reduce the level of hostility to me from 9.5 to 7.5.”
Mozes replies: “That’s clear to me. I got it. We have to ensure that you’ll (continue to be) prime minister.”
Agrees Netanyahu: “For the sake of the country, I think we have to ensure that.”
Says Mozes: “… You’re the crazy person who wants to be prime minister. So, good health to you, you will be.”
Other previously released excerpts have featured the two men discussing how to pass legislation that will reduce the impact of Israel Hayom — Netanyahu’s alleged side of the bargain. In the leaks released on Saturday night, Mozes offers to hire right-wing journalists even before a law is passed in order to begin to change Yedioth’s anti-Netanyahu tone. “Give me a right-wing (journalist to hire),” says Mozes. “I’ve been saying this to you for a long time.”
Says Netanyahu: “I can’t produce them from thin air…”
Continues Mozes: “Get me someone who can write articles starting tomorrow. Nu. From tomorrow morning — unrelated to anything, before (we pass) the law. Before everything. I’m trying to demonstrate to you my good will. Bring me someone.”
Mozes suggests that Ari Harow, the ex-Netanyahu chief of staff who was present and recorded one of their conversations, be given two or three names of possible pro-Netanyahu hires. “Give (Harow) two or three names and we’ll approach therm,” Mozes says. “But we’ll need to check them out, to make sure they won’t speak out publicly about the law.”
Netanyahu then complains that Amnon Abramovich, a Channel 2 commentator and Yedioth columnist, “kills me every day” with critical opinion pieces.
Mozes says he can’t easily sideline strong-minded writers like Abramovich and fellow columnist Nahum Barnea. “You can’t tell those guys what to do,” he says, telling Netanyahu that the prime minister will have to find a way to deal with them. Mozes says he can take responsibility for work done by his staff editors, but not for the opinionated columnists.
Mozes says Abramovich’s goal is to see former prime minister Ehud Barak back in power. Netanyahu asks that Abramovich at least be “balanced.”
(Abramovich told Army Radio on Sunday that he writes only one column every two to three weeks at Yedioth, and is not a staffer there, in contrast to Barnea and Sima Kadmon, another Yedioth columnist cited by Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s reference to him killing the prime minister every day was presumably a reference to his work at Channel 2, his full-time job, he said.)
Mozes muses that “there’ll be an earthquake” when Yedioth’s shifts the tone of its coverage. “We have to be smart about how we do it,” he says.
No deal between the two was ever implemented, and Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
In an excerpt quoted earlier this week, Mozes set out the terms of the deal to Netanyahu as follows: “If we can come to an agreement on the law, I will do all I can to make sure you stay here (in power) as long as you want. I’m looking you in the eye, and saying this as clearly as I can.”
Leaks from the Netanyahu-Mozes conversations on Friday showed Netanyahu hesitated in finalizing a deal with Mozes because he was worried about crossing Adelson, the US casino mogul who he referred to as “the gingy” (redhead) in the secret recordings.
Mozes is to be questioned a second time by police on Sunday, the TV report said, and Netanyahu is set to be questioned a third time later this week.
The TV report said that if police investigators find that Netanyahu tried to advance the ideas he and Mozes discussed, this would constitute “the beginning of evidence of criminal activity.”
It quoted unnamed coalition sources saying that the scandal is a 10 on the political scale, but not on the criminal scale. If police recommend an indictment against Netanyahu, the sources were quoted saying, then coalition leaders will begin pushing for the prime minister to suspend himself, but not before.
Channel 2 had said on Friday that Jerusalem prosecutors are adamant that the deal allegedly being cooked up should lead to an indictment for Netanyahu as an illegal quid pro quo.
In a second corruption case against Netanyahu, regarding cigars, champagne and other gifts he and his wife Sara allegedly received from Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan, the TV report Saturday said Netanyahu has acknowledged to friends that, as previously reported, he asked Secretary of State John Kerry to help secure a long-term US visa for Milchan.
The very fact that he made the request, Netanyahu is said to have told friends, shows that there was nothing secretive or illicit about it; it was just the kind of favor one does for good friends.
Opposition lawmakers on Saturday castigated Netanyahu’s alleged attempts to cut a deal for favorable coverage with Yedioth, with one ex-minister saying he had “come to the end of the road,” and a Labor MK calling him “the first mafia prime minister of Israel.”