A truly dismal saga is playing out in Jerusalem District Court. Not just as regards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also relating to parts of Israel’s media landscape. And although the cases before the court relate to the events of several years ago, the concerns they highlight about Israeli media independence, in the face of a prime minister who has worked strategically for years to bend media to his will, are all too current.
In the first of the three cases that entered the evidentiary stage this week, Netanyahu is battling allegations that for several years he exercised what amounted to editorial control over what was Israel’s second-largest news website, Walla, in an illicit quid pro quo deal with its owners that, one way or another, has harmed pretty much every Israeli.
The arrangement, over which Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the so-called Case 4000, allegedly worked like this: He and his aides secured favorable Walla coverage of his own activities and negative coverage of his rivals, chose and vetoed staff, and had individual articles changed, removed, and/or highlighted on the site to meet his needs. (In one example the state cites in its interim charge sheet, Netanyahu demanded that Walla feature “prominently and for many hours a video that you released on election day in 2015 in which you warned that ‘the Arabs [were] coming to the polls in droves’ and called upon right-wing voters to vote for your party.”)
In return, Netanyahu used his power and authority as prime minister and communications minister to advance decisions bringing colossal financial benefit to Shaul and Iris Elovitch, at the time the controlling shareholders of both Walla and Israel’s telecom giant Bezeq.
Netanyahu allegedly enabled a merger between Bezeq and the Yes satellite TV company worth hundreds of millions of shekels to the Elovitches. Of vast, nationwide significance, he also allegedly intervened to delay for years the vital, urgent overhaul of Israel’s internet infrastructure — stalling the deployment of high-speed fiber optic cables that would have given millions of Israelis cheaper and faster internet, meaning the Start-Up Nation gradually became a rather Slowed-Down Nation — in order to help preserve Bezeq’s monopoly in the field.
Netanyahu bitterly denies these and all the other allegations against him, repeatedly claiming that the charges are fabricated, and that Israel’s prosecutors and cops are conspiring with the media and his political rivals to oust him via the courts since they can’t defeat him at the ballot box.
Specifically, in this most serious of the cases for which he is on trial, he insists that all the decisions he made that related to the Elovitches, Bezeq, Yes, et al, were aboveboard, were approved by the relevant civil servants, and had no connection to the coverage he received from the website the Elovitches also happened to own, much of which he says was anything but favorable.
This was only the first week of the evidentiary stage of the trial, which is expected to last years, with over 300 witnesses potentially to be called. The presumption of innocence remains firmly with Netanyahu.
But the testimony of the first prosecution witness in Case 4000, Walla’s former CEO Ilan Yeshua, has already begun to illustrate some grim realities concerning integrity, or the lack thereof, in certain quarters of Israeli media.
The way Yeshua has been telling it to the judges, the editorial operation of a purportedly independent news website, the second most important source of online news for the Israeli public, was controlled by the prime minister and skewed relentlessly to his benefit, with the knowledge and complicity of some senior members of the editorial staff. Other staff members left Walla rather than distort coverage; still others resorted to acts of insubordination.
This all began before the January 2013 elections, and continued through to 2016, by which time the police were investigating. It was initially exposed in a Haaretz article (Hebrew link) in October 2015. Only then would Walla readers have learned that they had been consuming editorial content presented and prioritized not according to editors’ professional judgment of what constituted news, what exactly had happened in the news, and how much it mattered, but rather material routinely tailored to the interests and specific demands of the prime minister.
Netanyahu protests that politicians seeking fair coverage is a norm, not an offense, and that he is being prosecuted for behavior that no state prosecution ever, anywhere in the world, has previously claimed was criminal. The prosecution’s case, however, is that Netanyahu did much more than seek fair coverage — that in return for Elovitch agreeing to tailor Walla to meet his personal and political needs, he, abusing “the immense power of his office,” looked after Elovitch’s business interests. Hence the bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.
Case 2000, later on in the trial, is set to plunge us into a second alleged Netanyahu-media illicit quid pro quo. This concerns a negotiated but never-implemented deal under which Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, owner of Israel’s biggest news website, allegedly agreed with Netanyahu to remake Yedioth’s editorial line in the prime minister’s favor, in exchange for Netanyahu hobbling the competing Israel Hayom free newspaper — a near-overt mouthpiece for the prime minister’s interests that has deeply harmed Yedioth’s business.
The Walla scandal has led to a changing of the guard at that website, which is no longer owned by the Elovitches, who are also charged with bribery in the case. At Yedioth, years after the allegations came to light, eventually making it onto the Netanyahu charge sheet, Mozes, himself charged with bribery, remains in situ as majority owner and publisher.
Cases 2000 and 4000, two of the three corruption cases Netanyahu is fighting, revolve around his alleged corralling of Israeli media to try to boost his popularity and help him to retain power. The third, Case 1000, is largely focused on alleged illicit gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars Netanyahu and wife Sara received from (and favors done for) billionaire Israeli-American businessman and Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. This case too, though, also has media repercussions in that Milchan was a part-owner of Channel 10 TV, a major TV station (since relaunched as Channel 13).
As the prime minister’s trial continues, we are set to hear further troubling revelations not only about Netanyahu’s alleged illegal machinations to dominate the media landscape via the abuse of his ministerial powers and authority, but also about the complicity of senior figures in Israeli journalism in those efforts.
There may be a temptation to believe that the court is dealing with alleged abuses from long ago, that Israel’s state prosecutors are now belatedly exposing alleged illicit arrangements hatched years back between businesspeople who own media outlets and a politician who allegedly sought to exploit that nexus, and facilitated by journalists who were content or compelled to go along with it.
But the truth is that this is not all old and disputed history. The current iterations are a little different, but it’s still happening, right now.
At Army Radio, largely staffed by and bearing the brand of the Israel Defense Forces — an institution required to steer clear of partisan politics — a so-titled “political commentator” named Jacob Bardugo, allegedly installed in a deal engineered by Netanyahu, co-hosts a drivetime weekday early evening show in which he relentlessly shills for the prime minister. Disturbingly, Bardugo also relentlessly castigates the attorney general who had the gall to indict Netanyahu (Hebrew link), bashes everyone up to and including the president (Hebrew link) who he considers harmful or antithetical to the prime minister’s interests, and sometimes even challenges the radio station’s own reporters when he deems their coverage unsatisfactory. He and his hapless co-hosts also conduct numerous lengthy and obsequious interviews with Netanyahu in the run-up to each of our now frequent elections — giving considerably more airtime to the prime minister than his rivals who, if they are prepared to brave Bardugo’s often contemptuous approach, are interrogated and rudely interrupted.
In contrast to Walla, privately owned and surreptitiously tailoring its coverage to suit Netanyahu, this is distortion in plain sight at an Israeli taxpayer-funded, IDF-branded radio station. Everybody who works at the station knows it. Everybody who runs the station knows it. On it goes, day after day, week after week, election cycle after election cycle.
But Army Radio, every listener knows about. What of the other outlets where the skewing is a little more subtle, and the nexus between the interests of media-owning businesspeople and powerful Israeli politicians plays a covert role? That was allegedly the case at Walla, with allegedly staggering consequences.
How significant was that alleged Netanyahu-Elovitch quid pro quo deal — to the cardinal interests of both sides?
At Wednesday’s hearing of the Netanyahu trial, the prosecution presented a text message sent by the Elovitches’ son Or, then a member of Bezeq’s board of directors, to Ilan Yeshua immediately after the March 2015 elections, claiming that their arrangement had secured Netanyahu’s election victory, no less, and anticipating appropriate financial benefits.
“Congratulations, you won him the elections,” Or Elovitch wrote to the Walla CEO. “Now Bibi will do what Bezeq expects from him.”
David Horovitz adds: This is an updated version of the Editor’s Note that was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community.
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