We don’t know, at this stage, whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ever did anything to actually advance the deal he allegedly cooked up with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes, under which Yedioth was to scale back its routinely hostile coverage of Netanyahu in return for the prime minister advancing legislation that would defang its pro-Netanyahu rival daily, Israel Hayom.
We don’t know, at this stage, whether Netanyahu’s alleged readiness to cut such a deal constitutes criminal action — an illicit quid pro quo.
We don’t know whether the selected quotations from the transcripts of the two men’s tape-recorded conversations have been presented accurately in the leaks of the last few days, or what different interpretations might become plain were we to hear the recordings in full.
We don’t know whether Israel’s longest-serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion is ultimately going to be forced out of office because of tape recordings, Richard Nixon-style, that he himself ordered.
We don’t know if Netanyahu will be brought low by the other strand of his legal complications, regarding the alleged years of alleged gifts he allegedly received from, among others, Hollywood-based Israeli producer Arnon Milchan. Did he and his wife Sara benefit from an ongoing supply of cigars and wine worth hundreds of thousands of shekels for the best part of a decade? Or were the gifts far less frequent, far less costly, and reciprocal — mere goodies, unremarkably exchanged between best friends?
Yedioth publisher Arnon Mozes: ‘We have to ensure that you’ll (continue to) be prime minister.’
Benjamin Netanyahu: ‘For the sake of the country, I think we have to ensure that.’
— reported excerpt from transcript of a 2014 conversation
We don’t know whether Netanyahu’s reportedly acknowledged intervention on Milchan’s behalf with US Secretary of State John Kerry, to secure a long-term visa for Milchan, was the other side of an illegal arrangement, Netanyahu’s part of the bargain, or whether it was just a case of a favor for a friend.
We don’t know how long Netanyahu can survive in office with all these legal difficulties swirling around him. Opposition politicians are calling him Israel’s first mafia prime minister, saying he’s reached “the end of the road.” But his coalition colleagues are publicly sticking with him. We don’t know if or when they might turn, how they might be swayed if polls indicate that they might lose their Knesset seats and their power. Less than a decade ago, prime minister Ehud Olmert was forced out of office not after a conviction or even an indictment, but when his coalition partners turned against him and argued that he could not simultaneously fight escalating suspicions of corruption and run a tiny embattled country on the western edge of a largely hostile Middle Eastern land mass.
We don’t know how the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit — by all accounts a good and honest man, by all accounts a good friend of Netanyahu’s — is going to work his way through the agonizing dilemma of how to proceed: Mandelblit must have had emphatic reason to believe that the suspicions against Netanyahu could potentially lead to a criminal indictment; otherwise he would not have ordered a criminal probe. But he will know that pressing charges against Netanyahu would almost certainly force the prime minister from office. Imagine the consequence of ousting the democratically elected leader of Israel because of allegations that do not ultimately lead to a conviction. Conversely, imagine the consequence of failing to press charges in well-founded cases of corruption and thus running the risk of legitimizing wrongdoing in the highest of places. The stakes could hardly be higher. If only for the sake of Mandelblit’s sanity, one has to hope that the results of the investigation are sufficiently definitive, one way or the other, as to make his decisions on how to proceed straightforward.
And, finally, we don’t absolutely know, because the transcripts are partial and somewhat stripped of context, the lengths to which Yedioth’s Mozes was preparing to go in skewing his newspaper’s coverage of Netanyahu for the sake of his business interests. Sheldon Adelson’s free Israel Hayom has eaten into his circulation and gnawed into his revenues. He has a business to run, and the curbing of Israel Hayom would enable him to run it more profitably. Would reporters at his newspaper have been leaned on, fired, to guarantee the more favorable coverage he had allegedly promised the prime minister? Netanyahu reportedly wanted a lowering of the hostility quotient “from 9.5 to 7.5.” How might that have been measured? The mind boggles.
Yedioth publisher Mozes: ‘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.’
— reported excerpt from a recorded 2014 conversation with Netanyahu
There’s a great deal that we do not definitively know, and might come to know fairly soon.
But what we’ve learned already stinks. And it stinks, particularly, from the journalistic side of the political power/media watchdog equation.
Politicians — shock — want to stay in power. It’s why they are politicians. Prime ministers most of all.
Journalists are meant to scrutinize them, honestly.
Politicians are elected by a citizenry that chooses them to run the country on its behalf.
Journalists are meant to ensure they do a decent job of it.
When, by contrast, politicians are able to manipulate journalists at will, to wield newspapers as weapons, then journalism’s capacity to honestly scrutinize the political leadership is destroyed. When publishers are prepared to sacrifice their reporters and their columnists, to sacrifice the independence and integrity of their journalistic enterprises, in return for bolstered profits, then honest, public-service reporting becomes impossible. And without vibrant, brave, corruption-exposing journalism, journalism unimpeded by other interests and concerns, democracy is threatened. Politicians are no longer answerable to the public, no longer properly scrutinized, no longer fully held to account. Journalists are compromised and discredited. And the public is misled.
“All power tends to corrupt,” a wise British historian and moralist noted in a letter he wrote to a bishop 130 years ago, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In our context, gaining control over increasing sections of the media — the media that is charged with holding you to account — marks a step from “power” toward “absolute power.” The Yedioth publisher’s conversations with Netanyahu are not the first such steps that have been attempted or taken here. And Israel is anything but alone in the decline of its media independence. But the transcript excerpts are shattering, nonetheless, in the (alleged) cynical readiness of the two protagonists to so casually manipulate what the public is to be fed.
We don’t know how the Netanyahu corruption cases will end, legally. We do have immense cause for concern, democratically.