Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally tried to help broker the full or partial sale of Israel’s best-selling daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, to various international businessmen and publishers, as part of his dealings with Yedioth’s publisher, Arnon Mozes, Israel’s Channel 2 news reported on Sunday evening, citing what it said was “information obtained by police.”
Mozes was questioned for eight hours on Sunday by officers, who are investigating corruption allegations against Netanyahu, including the suspicion that he and Mozes hatched an illicit bargain under which Yedioth would give Netanyahu favorable coverage in return for the prime minister pushing legislation to neuter Yedioth’s rival, the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom.
Netanyahu, who is reportedly to be questioned a third time under caution later this week, has denied any wrongdoing. On Sunday, he decried “biased leaks” of excerpts from conversations he had held with Mozes in 2014, details of which Channel 2 has been reporting for several days and which allegedly feature Netanyahu and Mozes negotiating the terms of their arrangement.
According to Sunday’s TV report, Netanyahu personally reached out to Australian billionaire James Packer, Oracle chief Larry Ellison, and Mattias Dopfner, the CEO of Germany’s Axel Springer publishing group, to try to help broker a deal for them to buy or invest in Yedioth. Mozes is then believed to have met with several of those potential buyers, the report said. Arnon Milchan, the Israeli Hollywood producer who is at the center of a second corruption probe against Netanyahu, also played a role in brokering some of those contacts, the report said. (The Axel Springer group late Sunday denied ever considering buying Yedioth or negotiating on the issue.)
If police can establish that Mozes indeed held such meetings after Netanyahu had prepared the ground, that could constitute decisive evidence upon which to base charges of bribery, the report said.
New leaks Sunday from recorded conversations between Netanyahu and Mozes, meanwhile, indicated that the prime minister and the media mogul discussed the logistics of ensuring that coverage favorable to Netanyahu appear in Yedioth in the run up to the 2015 elections. The two men reportedly discussed which emissary of Netanyahu’s would speak with which senior Yedioth editors late at night to ensure that the desired material appeared in the next day’s edition and on Yedioth’s website, Ynet.
In one quote from the reported transcripts of their conversations, Mozes tells Netanyahu to delegate somebody to “speak to Ron Yaron,” Yedioth’s editor-in-chief. Netanyahu suggests Nir Hefetz, a senior spokesman of his who used to work for the paper, but Mozes rejects the choice, because Hefetz is known to have ambitions to himself edit Yedioth. Mozes says that Netanyahu is welcome to discuss urgent matters with him directly during the day.
Another reported comment from Mozes appears to indicate that he and Netanyahu have secretly dealt on getting favorable coverage of Netanyahu into Yedioth in previous election cycles — in 1996, 1999 and 2009; this despite the fact that Netanyahu has often publicly indicated that Mozes is something of a nemesis. “We’ve been in this situation before, we did it. This is our fourth election cycle… 96, 99, 2009 and now,” Mozes reportedly says. Netanyahu won three of those elections, losing to Ehud Barak in 2009.
Noting that the 2015 elections are only three and a half months away, Mozes reportedly tells Netanyahu, “We have to get going quickly because I need to move the ship” — in other words, to shift Yedioth’s coverage from its current hostile stance toward Netanyahu. “I’ll speak to (editor) Ron (Yaron) on Sunday.”
Agrees Netanyahu, “Turn the ship around.”
Mozes promises, “I’ll tell Ron on Sunday that he’ll be contacted. It’s a start.”
Leaks from the same conversations reported on Saturday by Channel 2 revealed the prime minister discussing with Mozes which journalists at Yedioth were unacceptably hostile to him, and the newspaper mogul pondering how to marginalize them.
Netanyahu is said to have told police investigators, when questioned under caution, that he recorded the conversations because he believed Mozes was trying to extort him. He never had so much as “half an intention” of implementing any deal with Mozes, Channel 2 on Saturday quoted Netanyahu as insisting.
Excerpts from transcripts of the conversations leaked on Saturday night also featured Netanyahu declaring that what he expects under the deal with Yedioth is “moderation” in its coverage of him, “to reduce the level of hostility toward me from 9.5 to 7.5.”
Mozes replies, “That’s clear to me. I got it. We have to ensure that you’ll (continue to be) prime minister.”
Other previously released excerpts have featured the two men discussing how to pass legislation that would reduce the impact of Israel Hayom — Netanyahu’s alleged side of the bargain. In the leaks released on Saturday night, Mozes offers to hire right-wing journalists even before a law is passed in order to begin to change Yedioth’s anti-Netanyahu tone. “Give me a right-wing (journalist to hire),” says Mozes. “I’ve been saying this to you for a long time.”
Says Netanyahu: “I can’t produce them from thin air…”
Mozes muses that “there’ll be an earthquake” when Yedioth shifts the tone of its coverage. “We have to be smart about how we do it,” he says.
In an excerpt quoted last week, Mozes set out the terms of the deal to Netanyahu as follows: “If we can come to an agreement on the law (to curb Israel Hayom), 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.”
No deal between the two was ever implemented. Speaking at a meeting of Likud ministers Sunday morning, Netanyahu said the “biased leaks” of his conversations with Mozes were meant “to mislead the public and distort the truth as if there were [criminal] offenses when there were none.”
In a second corruption case against Netanyahu, regarding cigars, champagne and other gifts he and his wife, Sara, allegedly received from Milchan, the Israeli film producer, Channel 2 report Saturday said Netanyahu has acknowledged to friends that, as previously reported, he asked Secretary of State John Kerry to help secure a long-term US visa for Milchan.
The very fact that he made the request, Netanyahu is said to have told friends, shows that there was nothing secretive or illicit about it; it was just the kind of favor one does for good friends.
Sara Netanyahu gave testimony in that case last Wednesday, and on Sunday accused police investigators of being thuggish in their dealings with her, and treating her with disrespect, Channel 2 said.
Opposition lawmakers on Saturday castigated Netanyahu’s alleged attempts to cut a deal for favorable coverage with Yedioth, with one ex-minister saying he had “come to the end of the road,” and a Labor MK calling him “the first mafia prime minister of Israel.”
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