Faced by a growing scandal surrounding recordings that appear to show Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes negotiating a planned series of firings and reforms to push coverage more friendly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the editor of the popular daily said his staff would have quit en masse had the deal gone through.
In a front-page editorial, Yeditoh editor-in-chief Ron Yaron asserted that staff at the newspaper would have walked out as their loyalty lies with the readers, above all else.
The column was published hours after Channel 2 news published transcripts of recorded conversations in which the prime minister discusses which journalists are unacceptably hostile to him and the newspaper mogul ponders how to marginalize them. It was the latest dramatic development in a corruption investigation that has threatened Netanyahu’s hold on power.
According to reports, Netanyahu and Mozes held several face-to-face conversations in 2014 on an alleged deal under which Yedioth would scale back its critical coverage of the prime minister in return for Netanyahu ensuring legislation that would reduce the impact of Yedioth’s competitor, Sheldon Adelson’s pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom free daily.
In the transcript, Mozes warns Netanyahu that tilting coverage in the prime minister’s favor would create an “earthquake” at the newspaper.
“This newspaper would not have survived that earthquake,” Yaron wrote in his editorial, which covered half of the front page of the tabloid. “All of us, to a person, would have left and found another home. And then, in any case, Yedioth Ahronoth would not have been the newspaper you are now holding in your hand.
“Our dear readers — we, the editors and writers, are loyal first of all to you, and only then to the one who pays our salary,” he wrote.
Despite professing alarm at the reports of the Netanyahu-Mozes negotiations, Yaron, who has worked at the paper for 25 years and been editor for the last five, stressed that the publisher is dedicated to his readership.
“Mozes is utterly loyal to the readers of this paper, to his life’s work, which his father and grandfather established 77 years ago,” Yaron wrote of Mozes.
In explaining the relationship between the publisher and the editor at a newspaper, Yaron offered the example of an art gallery owner who hires a director to fill the walls with paintings.
“The owner of gallery doesn’t really have influence on the pictures or their place on the wall. The maximum he can do is to fire the director and all of the artists and replace them with other people. As long as that hasn’t happened rest assured that the gallery looks and is managed great.
“I’m not trying to say it’s business as usual, and won’t hide the fact that we feel profound distress in our hearts, but we nevertheless continue to do our work out of a powerful inner faith that we are painting for you every day anew, including today, the Mona Lisa,” he continued.
The transcripts reported by Channel 2 news Saturday night, the latest in a series of leaks, featured snippets of detailed conversations between the two men about how to reduce Yedioth’s hostility to Netanyahu in order to help ensure that he retains power.
No deal between the two was ever implemented as far as is known, and Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
The prime minister 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 such deal, Channel 2 quoted Netanyahu as insisting.
But the nature of the conversations, the TV report said, make it clear that Netanyahu was negotiating entirely “practically,” in a “pleasant atmosphere,” with the media mogul.
The excerpts broadcast on Saturday night 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.”
“For the sake of the country, I think we have to ensure that,” Netanyahu agrees.
“… You’re the crazy person who wants to be prime minister. So, good health to you, you will be,” Mozes replies.
Previously released excerpts 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 an excerpt quoted earlier this week, Mozes set out the terms of the deal to Netanyahu as follows: “If we can come to an agreement on the law, 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.”
Leaks from the Netanyahu-Mozes conversations on Friday showed Netanyahu hesitated in finalizing a deal with Mozes because he was worried about crossing Adelson, the US casino mogul who he referred to as “the gingy” (redhead) in the secret recordings.
Mozes was questioned a second time by police on Sunday morning, with Netanyahu reportedly set to be questioned a third time later this week.
In a second corruption case against Netanyahu, regarding cigars, champagne and other gifts he and his wife, Sara, allegedly received from Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan, Saturday’ TV report said Netanyahu had 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.
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.
Lawmakers in the prime minister’s Likud party have indicated some are starting to make preparations for the “day after.”
Unnamed coalition sources quoted by Channel 2 said that should Netanyahu be charged, coalition leaders will begin pushing for him to suspend himself, though not before.
Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, resigned office in 2009 after being indicted on a series of graft charges. He was eventually convicted on some of them and is currently in prison.
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.”