Last Sunday morning, New Year’s Day, journalists and camera crews met with disappointment as they arrived at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem to await the reported imminent arrival of police investigators.
Instead of the view toward the house normally afforded by gates on either side of Balfour Street, huge panels had been erected to prevent any potentially damaging photos or footage of uniformed officers carrying stacks of incriminating documents into their session with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the end, in a further sign of the barrier that had been placed between the media and details of the investigation, it turned out the news outlets had gotten the time wrong. Officers arrived just before 7 p.m, after very literally leaving reporters in the cold for nearly 12 hours.
Following the interrogation, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit confirmed for the first time that he had ordered two criminal investigations into separate allegations of wrongdoing by the prime minister.
In a rare move, Mandelblit omitted any details of the investigation from his statement, saying only that Netanyahu was suspected of “receiving improper benefits from businessmen,” an ambiguous phrase that does not appear in the penal code. Asked by The Times of Israel what specific criminal charges were being investigated, a spokesperson for the attorney general said emphatically, “We will release details when necessary.”
Now, a week-and-a-half later, with Netanyahu having been questioned a second time and damning leaks from the investigations trickling out from police to various media outlets, it appears that the prime minister may be implicated in one of the most serious crimes that can be leveled against a public servant: bribery.
‘I’m looking you in the eye, and saying this as clearly as I can’
Media reports have fluctuated on which of the two investigations contains the more serious allegations against the prime minister — “Case 1000,” probing allegations Netanyahu received hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of cigars, champagne and other gifts from billionaire benefactors; or “Case 2000,” which explores claims he promised to work to hobble a newspaper if a competing paper gave him better coverage.
But while both could potentially see Netanyahu in legal hot water, a series of reports on Tuesday and Wednesday have prompted assessments that Netanyahu’s negotiations with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Moses could lead to ruinous criminal charges.
“If the reports are true, and there was a promise made by a powerful publisher to the prime minister and the prime minister promised to advance a law in return, then there is no question that this is bribery,” Avia Alef, the former head of the financial investigations department in the State Prosecutor’s Office, said Wednesday.
Alef, speaking on Army Radio, was referring to reports that Mozes told Netanyahu at a 2014 meeting that he would do everything he could to keep Netanyahu in power if the prime minister advanced legislation to curtail the distribution of Yedioth’s main competitor, the pro-Netanyahu free daily Israel Hayom.
The claims, reportedly leaked by police investigators, were based on quotes from recordings of a number of meetings held between Netanyahu and Mozes that were apparently secretly taped on the instruction of the prime minister.
“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,” Channel 2 quoted Mozes as saying. “I’m looking you in the eye, and saying this as clearly as I can.”
Netanyahu is said to have agreed, though there is no indication any such deal was implemented.
Alef said the contents of the discussion, if accurately reported, constituted “a clear request, proposal for bribery.” And even if the oral deal, which was said to have been sealed just after elections were called in December 2014, was not implemented, agreeing to try would be enough to implicate Netanyahu, she said. “According to what has been reported, Netanyhau agreed. There is a proposal, there is a quid pro quo and there is a promise.”
According to the penal code, a public servant can be found guilty of bribery for requesting or agreeing to receive a bribe, even if the bribes were ultimately rejected or the deal fell through before implementation.
Mozes, who has often been described as a long-time arch-nemesis of the prime minister, is also being investigated, and he, too, faced police questioning under caution last week. While bribery laws are specific to public servants, previous rulings have expanded the scope of the law to include those who “provide public services,” Avia said, suggesting that Mozes could also be charged with taking a bribe.
Mouthpiece or asset?
The negotiations could pose a further legal challenge to Netanyahu over his alleged connections to Israel Hayom, his ostensible mouthpiece, which rarely offers anything but positive coverage of the prime minister.
Initial reports of the negotiations did not specify whether Netanyahu had promised to personally manage the neutering of the daily or rather to advance or allow legislation to ban or hamstring it. But if it were to emerge that he said he would be able to close or constrain the paper on his own, that would constitute Netanyahu’s first public admission that he could wield such influence.
According to Prof. Barak Medina, the former dean of the Hebrew University Law Faculty, such an admission could itself be reason to charge Netanyahu with a number of crimes other than bribery.
“First, he would appear to be breaking regulations over public officials helping to create a monopoly,” Medina told The Times of Israel, suggesting that the negotiations could fall under antitrust prohibitions outlined in the Restrictive Trade Practices Law.
But it is Netanyahu’s previous denial of having control over the paper that creates a much more serious problem for the prime minister, Medina said.
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.”
In October 2016, the state comptroller rejected allegations that Israel Hayom should be considered political campaign material for Netanyahu and the Likud party, based, partly, on that affidavit.
If the discussions with Mozes show that Netanyahu does in fact have influence on the paper, then he could be charged with fraud and perjury, Medina said, “let alone breaking the rules of campaign finance.”
In light of the recordings, Shacher Ben-Meir, an attorney, on Sunday sent a letter to the attorney general asking him to investigate whether Netanyahu had lied in the affidavit, the 7th Eye media watchdog reported.
It is unclear for now whether the recordings will be enough to indict the prime minister for bribery or prove his control over Israel Hayom, but Netanyahu could still face other charges based solely on his talks with Mozes. The discussions alone, given that there were a number of separate meetings that took place over a few weeks, could suggest crimes of fraud and breach of trust, according to Medina.
“Putting yourself at risk of not acting in the public interest is the very definition of fraud and breach of trust,” he said. “You don’t have to take money or get benefits to be guilty.”
By that definition, according to Medina, even if Mozes promised Netanyahu positive coverage without asking for anything in return, the possible conflict of interest that would ensue could have compromised the prime minister’s ability to act in the public interest.
Netanyahu is expected to claim that he instructed that the meetings be recorded by an aide for fear that Mozes would try to extort him.
According to former prosecutor Alef, such a claim would be hard to prove in court.
“Is someone is being extorted, then they should go to the police. Why didn’t he?” she told Army Radio. “Let’s not forget, Nixon lost the presidency over recordings that he himself made.”
Former Supreme Court justice Eliyahu Matza said that whatever the suspicions and potential charges, the possible significance of the recordings warrants their immediate release to the public, regardless of the ongoing investigation.
“Do the discussions in these recordings contradict journalistic ethics? Certainly. Do they contradict the general vales of democracy? Certainly. Do they have a criminal aspect? Yes, I think so,” he said. “It’s absolutely the right of the public to know what’s in these recordings, not just the police.”