The editor of the free Hebrew daily Israel Hayom met with police Tuesday morning to provide testimony in a corruption investigation into whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked to reduce the newspaper’s circulation in exchange for more flattering coverage from rival publication Yedioth Ahronoth.
The meeting came as Yedioth publisher and owner Arnon Mozes was questioned by investigators for a third straight day as police look into the unfolding scandal and other suspicions reportedly involving expensive gifts to the prime minister from businessmen.
Israel Hayom editor Amos Regev, who arrived at the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit Tuesday morning, was expected to be asked by police to provide testimony concerning the nature of the newspaper’s relationship with the prime minister and whether the paper was aware of or involved in Netanyahu’s suspected quid pro quo with Mozes.
Israel Hayom, which was launched in 2007 and has become Israel’s most highly circulated daily, has been a firm voice of support for the prime minister. It is owned by the Jewish-American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a staunch Netanyahu supporter.
On Monday, Channel 10 reported that Adelson is expected to give testimony in the coming days. Investigators are expected to ask Adelson whether he was aware of the alleged deal the prime minister discussed with Yedioth publisher Arnon Mozes, according to Channel 10.
It is unclear if Adelson, who lives in the US, will come to Israel to speak with police or will provide written or video testimony.
Israel Police chief Roni Alsheich said Tuesday morning that the “investigation [of the prime minister] will not be very long,” while adding that any decision to proceed further with the case is for the attorney general to make.
Alsheich denied that the police were behind the leaks of segments of transcripts of the recorded Netanyahu-Mozes conversations that have been reported in the media.
In leaked transcripts of audio recordings from 2014, Netanyahu seems to promise to advance legislation designed to hobble Adelson’s free Israel Hayom daily in exchange for competing paper Yedioth giving the prime minster more favorable coverage.
Given out for free, Israel Hayom has become a thorn in the side of Yedioth, eating into the tabloid’s circulation and revenues.
New excerpts of the transcripts of recorded conversations between Mozes and Netanyahu leaked to Channel 2 on Monday featured Mozes and the prime minister discussing the specifics of how to curb Adelson’s daily.
Mozes says they need to “think about the details” of proposed legislation that would restrict the distribution of free newspapers, while Netanyahu says that he’ll “have to tell Sheldon.”
Netanyahu’s late 2014 conversations with Mozes are at the heart of one of two corruption investigations into Netanyahu, which have seen the prime minister questioned three times under caution and Mozes questioned four times under caution.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, in a speech Monday, said police had collected considerable evidence abroad in recent months in the second investigation, which concerns alleged illicit benefits received for years by Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, from businessmen.
In Monday’s reported transcript, the men discuss reducing Israel Hayom to two-thirds of its circulation, but Mozes notes that the legislation’s wording will “have to cite a number (of copies), not ‘two-thirds.’”
Assents Netanyahu: “We have to explain the number… to take it down to two-thirds.”
Mozes notes that Israel Hayom’s circulation has been rising: “When we talked in the past about numbers, it used to be 275,000 copies, and today it’s 325,000,” he notes, explaining the increasingly detrimental impact on Yedioth, which is Israel’s best-selling tabloid but has fewer readers than the free Israel Hayom. “The more time that passes,” says Mozes, “it becomes (more of) a problem. We put it off and its gets harder to solve.” The Friday weekend edition of Israel Hayom, he adds, has a circulation of 400,000.
Mozes then notes that Israel Hayom enjoys considerable revenue from government advertising — “30, 50, 70 percent of the advertising pages” are government ads, he complains. Ideally, says Mozes, he’d like “a formula” regarding such pages.
Netanyahu asks: “What? Can you limit the number of advertising pages?”
Mozes decides to put the matter aside for the time being. “The state is giving them money. That’s not right,” he says. “But I’m mentioning this in passing. We can’t deal with everything all at once.”
Netanyahu agrees: “Okay, I’ve noted that; we won’t deal with that now.”
Leaks from the Netanyahu-Mozes conversations published on Friday showed Netanyahu hesitated in finalizing a deal with Mozes because he was worried about crossing Adelson, the US casino mogul, to whom he reportedly referred as “the gingy” (redhead) in the secret recordings.
Sources close to Netanyahu have alleged that he recorded the conversations because he feared Mozes was trying or would try to extort him.
The second investigation into Netanyahu is probing claims that he and his wife received thousands of shekels’ worth of luxury gifts from businessmen including an Israeli Hollywood-based film producer.
Police are checking whether the Netanyahus received some NIS 400,000-600,000 ($100,000-150,000) in gifts of cigars and fine wines from the producer, Arnon Milchan. The couple have reportedly insisted that the sums involved were far lower, and that the gifts were unremarkable, since the Milchans are their best friends.
Netanyahu’s son Yair was also expected to be questioned by police Tuesday in regards to the case over allegations that he stayed in hotel rooms paid for by billionaire benefactors, among them Milchan and Australian businessman James Packer.
Netanyahu, who has denied any wrongdoing in either case, on Monday termed the investigations against him “fake,” declaring them part of a “media conspiracy” of “unprecedented scope” geared to topple his government.
Analysts have said indictments are possible in both cases, and some have begun to see the twin scandals as heralding the possible end of Netanyahu’s nearly eight years in power.