The editor of Israel’s biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth said Sunday he had no idea his publisher had discussed providing more favorable coverage of Benjamin Netanyahu in return for the prime minister reducing the impact of Yedioth’s pro-Netanyahu rival, Israel Hayom.
A 2014 conversation to this effect between Netanyahu and Yedioth’s publisher Arnon Mozes is reportedly at the heart of one of two strands of an escalating corruption investigation into the prime minister, which revolves around Netanyahu allegedly accepting illegal benefits of various kinds.
In the other case, meanwhile, in which several businessmen are alleged to have given lucrative gifts to Netanyahu and his wife Sara, a Channel 2 news report Sunday claimed that Arnon Milchan — who allegedly supplied Netanyahu with cigars and his wife with champagne for years — is only one of several businessmen to have plied the Netanyahus with gifts. There are up to four Milchan-type benefactors, the TV report said, and the principal beneficiary of some of them is Sara Netanyahu, who received “costly gifts” from them, often during trips abroad.
The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyer has insisted Netanyahu has done nothing remotely illegal.
Mozes, often described as a long-time arch-nemesis of the prime minister, is reportedly being investigated under caution by police, along with Netanyahu, over their dealings, in what is known as Case 2000. The gifts-from-businessmen case, which Hebrew media reports claim is the more legally threatening for Netanyahu, is known as Case 1000.
Police officers are said to be in possession of a recording that appears to corroborate the suspicions of a “quid-pro-quo” discussion between Netanyahu and Mozes.
Ron Yaron, Yedioth’s editor, said in a statement on Sunday evening that he’d had no idea of the Netanyahu-Mozes discussion, and that Yedioth is an honest and professional newspaper. All material published by Yedioth meets “journalistic standards” and appears for proper professional reasons, Yaron added.
Channel 2 reported that Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, was present at the Netanyahu-Mozes meeting, and recorded the conversation at the prime minister’s request. The recordings were found by police at Harow’s home.
The evidence, the reports said, doesn’t necessarily point at financial favors, but rather indicates an attempt to forge a quid pro quo pact, under which the prime minister promised Mozes he would work to reduce the circulation of rival pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom, the free daily which has eaten away at Yedioth’s market share, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
According to Channel 2, the talks were over shuttering the weekend edition of Israel Hayom, which is owned by US billionaire and Netanyahu ally Sheldon Adelson.
Channel 10 reported that Netanyahu also attempted to convince Mozes to kill a story about his son, Yair Netanyahu. It was not immediately clear what information Yedioth had on Yair Netanyahu or if the story was published.
Yedioth, once the country’s largest tabloid, is often seen as critical of Netanyahu, and he has complained of unfair coverage from the newspaper, amid a larger media campaign to push him from office.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office declined a Times of Israel request to comment on the reports.
According to Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu told ministers at a Sunday cabinet meeting, “Now that I know what is being [investigated] I can tell you with certainty: There will be nothing because there is nothing,” a mantra he has repeated several times over the last two weeks.
The prime minister said that the case was a result of “relentless pressure by media sources on the law enforcement authorities,” describing the suspicions as “nothing but hot air.”
Netanyahu was questioned by police under caution on Thursday evening for five hours — the second such session in four days. Reports have mostly dealt with a separate investigation involving possibly illicit gifts that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received from several businessmen including Arnon Milchan.
A Sunday Haaretz report quoted sources close to the prime minister as saying he was surprised by the quality of the evidence police had amassed in the case.
Netanyahu’s lawyer Yaakov Weinroth on Friday rejected the notion that there was anything criminal in the prime minister’s actions, and said he had nothing to fear from either case.