A former aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu testified on Tuesday that his boss had sought an agreement with Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the publisher of the popular Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper, to temper its hostile coverage of him out of fear he would lose the 2015 general election.
Ari Harow, a state witness, said that Netanyahu was extremely concerned over the negative press he was receiving in Yedioth, and said that the prime minister had described Mozes as “enemy number one” due to what Harow described as Yedioth’s “aggressive” stance against the prime minister.
Harow recalled that Netanyahu had asked him to set up meetings with Mozes at the prime minister’s residence and to secretly record those meetings.
He also confirmed that it had been Netanyahu or “someone else involved in legislation” who had asked him to meet with then-Knesset House Committee chairman MK Yariv Levin about legislation to limit the reach of Yedioth’s major rival, the right-wing freesheet Israel Hayom.
Harow was testifying in so-called Case 2000 against Netanyahu, in which the prime minister is accused of fraud and breach of trust over his alleged attempt to reach a quid pro quo agreement with Mozes whereby Yedioth would give the prime minister more positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening Israel Hayom.
Ultimately, the Knesset did not pass legislation constricting Israel Hayom.
Harow is one of three major state witnesses against Netanyahu. During Tuesday’s hearing he was terse with State Attorney Alon Gildin, who was questioning him, and did not volunteer much information. He was frequently unable to recall specific details of meetings and conversations about which the state attorney inquired, stating at one point that it was difficult to recollect such details after eight years had elapsed.
Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases. He faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000, and charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. He denies wrongdoing and says the charges were fabricated in a political coup led by the police and state prosecution.
Harow is himself under indictment for fraud and breach of trust and reached a plea bargain with the State Attorney’s Office in return for his testimony in Netanyahu’s trial.
“Mozes was enemy number one. He was seen as working against the prime minister and against us in the most aggressive manner,” he testified.
“We were approaching the  elections and there was a hostile media body and there was a will to try and lower the flames, to reduce the attacks against him [Netanyahu], and I understood from Moses that he was willing to come to understandings around the Israel Hayom law,” said Harow.
Harow returned to work as Netanyahu’s chief of staff in 2014 after previous stints working for the premier.
He said that Netanyahu asked him to set up several meetings with Mozes and to secretly record these meetings since he believed Mozes was himself making recordings. Harow noted, however, that he had said at the time that recording the conversations was not a good idea.
Harow said he asked Netanyahu’s lawyer David Shimron about the legality of the recordings and that Shimron had said that as long as Harow was part of the conversation the recordings were permitted.
He added that Shimron had said it was important for Netanyahu not to sound like there was some form of “give and take” relationship in the conversations.
During one of the meetings between Netanyahu and Mozes at the prime minister’s office, Harow hit record on his phone and kept it in his jacket pocket during the conversation. In another meeting in which Harow was not present, Harow put his phone inside Netanyahu’s jacket pocket with the prime minister’s knowledge in order to make the recording.
“Netanyahu saw Mozes as an enemy, and so wanted to come to an understanding that he would stop the attacks on him [Netanyahu] and his family,” said Harow.
“[Mozes] was interested in seeing if it would be possible to pass something in the vein of an Israel Hayom law and Netanyahu was afraid that without an understanding with Mozes he would lose the elections,” he continued.
According to testimony Harow gave in an interrogation in 2017, which the state attorney read during the court hearing, “Bibi said that if we can get an agreement with Noni [Mozes] we can win the election.”
Gildin also asked Harow about a meeting he held with Levin in October 2014 in Modiin, where they both lived, regarding the Israel Hayom legislation, which the indictment against Netanyahu states dealt with alternative methods of restricting Israel Hayom’s operations, separate from the legislation advanced by MK Eitan Cabel from the opposition.
Harow said he did not remember who initiated the meeting but noted that since it was about legislative issues it was either at the request of Netanyahu or another element within the cabinet or coalition.
The so-called Israel Hayom law to restrict the operations of freesheets was approved in a preliminary reading in the Knesset in November 2014, but was ultimately buried when new elections were called.
Harow’s testimony ended on Tuesday afternoon. He will be cross-interrogated by Netanyahu’s legal team on Wednesday.