Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers claimed Monday that the partial exoneration of a local politician in a bribery scheme that involved news outlets has weakened the state’s position in the most serious of the criminal cases against the prime minister.
But legal officials and analysts have concluded that the precise opposite is true, saying the ruling lays the groundwork for the prime minister’s possible conviction.
The Tel Aviv District Court on Monday convicted ex-Ashkelon mayor Itamar Shimoni of bribery, breach of trust and money laundering, but found him not guilty of swaying media coverage in his favor.
In 2017, Shimoni was charged with accepting bribes totaling NIS 466,000 ($124,000) and with breach of trust for accepting a further NIS 575,000 ($153,000) from unknown sources while serving as mayor of the city. One of the charges was that he had helped his associate Yoel Davidi take ownership of a local website, Ashkelon 10, which had been highly critical of Shimoni and his council, in order to silence it, in exchange for favorable businesses opportunities.
But the judge acquitted Davidi and Shimoni on the charges relating to the local news site, saying in her ruling that since positive media coverage is intangible, it’s much harder to prove a quid pro quo arrangement.
“Due to the nature and status of the media, caution must be exercised in attributing criminal offenses to the actions of media outlets,” Justice Limor Margolin-Yehidi wrote in her ruling.
Media outlets in Israel took note of Margolin-Yehidi’s decision, with many saying it was a precedent-setting ruling that will be taken into account during the likely trial of Netanyahu in Case 4000. In that case, Netanyahu is accused of arranging a quid pro quo with Shaul Elovitch, the owner of the Walla news website, altering its coverage in favor of the prime minister in exchange for business benefits concerning other entities owned by Elovitch.
Netanyahu’s lawyers argued that “the court acquitted the defendants of the charge that positive coverage is a bribe — and did not create that precedent.”
But as noted Monday by Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s sister site in Hebrew, the judge wrote that while caution should be exercised, legal authorities must occasionally intervene in cases of media coverage swayed by other forces.
“Refraining from intervening could allow those who aren’t interested in an open, critical, investigative media to erode the media’s power, reliability and the justification for its special status in democracy, while committing the serious offense of taking a bribe with impunity,” she wrote.
Margolin-Yehidi laid out a series of conditions for positive coverage being considered part of a bribery deal — all of which match the case against Netanyahu, argued Zman Israel analyst Nati Yefet.
The criteria are that the media outlet is owned by someone with external financial interests that concern the publicly elected official in question; that the outlet has an ideological line that can be altered, make the change more visible; and that the change in coverage concerns personal or family image issues with little to no connection to the public official’s position — particularly censoring negative reports, pushing negative reports about rivals, or scrapping positive reports about them.
The public official must be determined to drive specific changes, such as revisions to headlines, cover pages, pictures or story placement; the influence must last over a period of time rather than a single occurrence; and the public official must regard the media outlet as important, according to her ruling.
Unlike Shimoni, whose actions did not comply with those specifications, Netanyahu’s relations with Elovitch matches each and every one of them, Zman Israel said.
“In complete contrast with the statement released by Netanyahu’s attorneys, the ruling by justice Margolin-Yehidi is definitely not proof that Case 4000 can’t lead to a bribery conviction,” Yefet said. “Additionally, now that the criteria for media coverage amounting to bribery are exposed to the public, it would be hard for Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to ignore the ruling and soften the charges against the prime minister.”
Channel 12 on Monday evening cited unnamed sources within the State Prosecutor’s Office as cautioning that the ruling, while important, was still issued by a single judge, not a panel of three judges.
The sources said the Tel Aviv District Court ruling wouldn’t necessarily compel judges in other district courts to adopt the same legal considerations.
But the unnamed sources added that the ruling nevertheless supports the legal thesis at the basis of Case 4000, and possibly also Case 2000, which involves a suspected quid pro quo under which the prime minister is accused of seeking more positive coverage from the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in exchange for hobbling its rival, the free daily Israel Hayom, through Knesset legislation.
Netanyahu is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000, and fraud and breach of trust in Case 2000 as well as Case 1000, which doesn’t involve his relations with the media. He denies any wrongdoing, and says he is the victim of a political witch hunt involving the media, opposition, police and state prosecutors.
Monday’s ruling refutes the claim voiced by American lawyers during Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing that favorable coverage can never be considered a benefit as part of a bribery deal, the officials said.
Since Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu for bribery in February, the premier has been repeatedly arguing that there is “no precedent” in the world to announcing bribery charges based on positive coverage rather than money, citing lawyers such as Alan Dershowitz.
Channel 13 likewise quoted unnamed prosecution officials as being “very satisfied” with Monday’s ruling, with a senior legal source saying it “gives us an excellent platform if we decide there is sufficient evidence in Case 4000. The court said clearly that slanting coverage can definitely be considered bribery.”
The attorney general is expected to indict Netanyahu in the coming weeks.