Israeli TV on Sunday aired a second batch of leaked recordings of conversations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the publisher of one of Israel’s most popular newspapers in which the premier can be heard saying negative coverage of him was “hurting” in the run up to the 2015 election.
“What are you planning for the  elections, are you going for my head? Seriously, yes or no? You are hurting me,” Netanyahu asks Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes in conversations that further highlighted efforts by the premier to secure positive press coverage.
The recordings are at the heart of an investigation in which Netanyahu is facing possible criminal charges for his role in an alleged 2014 quid pro quo deal with Mozes that would have seen the premier receive more positive coverage by the tabloid in exchange for weakening its main rival, Israel Hayom.
The affair, known as “Case 2000,” is one of three in which Netanyahu may be indicted in the coming months. Mozes may also face charges as part of the scandal.
The recordings were unearthed in a separate investigation into former Netanyahu aide Ari Harow, who was present at the meetings between Netanyahu and Mozes and who allegedly taped the conversations. Harow has since turned state’s witness.
The first recordings were aired Saturday by the investigative show “Hamakor” (The Source) on Channel 13. While news organizations have reported on transcripts of the recordings, the actual audio had not previously been made public.
In those recorded conversations, which took place in late 2014, Netanyahu is heard apparently negotiating for more favorable coverage while later threatening to retaliate “with all the tools at my disposal” against news items he deems too personal and negative.
Mozes is also heard offering to publish opinion articles written by someone approved by the premier while also proposing to run negative news items about his political rivals, all while under the impression Netanyahu may be open to backing legislation that would hobble free newspapers like Israel Hayom.
That paper, bankrolled by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson and considered very pro-Netanyahu, is handed out for free and has seriously hurt Yedioth’s circulation figures over the years. The alleged Netanyahu-Mozes agreement was never implemented.
On Sunday evening, further recordings were aired by Channel 13.
On one occasion, the premier can be heard telling Mozes: “Put the law [to restrict Israel Hayom] aside for a moment. What are you planning for the  elections, are you going for my head? Seriously, yes or no? You are hurting me.”
Netanyahu is then heard asking Mozes whether “the German” had called him and arranged a meeting, with Channel 13 identifying that person as German businessman Matthias Dorfner. The network said that Netanyahu had been trying to have a wealthy associate buy Yedioth in a separate bid to change its negative coverage of him. Among those he tried to get to by the paper were Dorfner, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Israel-American Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
Those efforts were ultimately fruitless because Mozes had demanded a price that was too high, the report said, adding that Netanyahu had been disappointed by their refusal to pay.
Mozes can be heard answering: “Arrange an appointment. No, they couldn’t come this month. I think that in the first meeting we will be able to understand whether there is a deal or if there isn’t.
Netanyahu’s line of defense in Case 2000 has been that he hadn’t been serious in his talks with Mozes and that he in fact had no intention in implementing the quid pro quo deal. Prosecutors have apparently accepted that argument, deciding to charge Mozes for bribery, but only indict Netanyahu for the lesser charges of fraud and breach of trust.
In the recordings, Netanyahu appears to indicate that he had spoken about the suggested deal with Israel Hayom publisher Sheldon Adelson.
“When Sheldon spoke about opening the newspaper [Israel Hayom], he spoke of providing a service. I totally wanted that,” Netanyahu says. “Now, when you come to me to give you a solution, that solution has already been formulated.”
Mozes isn’t satisfied with the offer to hobble Israel Hayom, saying: “But you are giving me a solution that will be implemented in eight months at the earliest.”
Netanyahu can then be heard emphasizing that Adelson was not completely aligned with Netanyahu and was a separate party with his own interests, with Mozes responding that he doesn’t know Adelson, only Netanyahu, and that as far as he was concerned, he was discussing a deal with Netanyahu, not Netanyahu and Adelson.
Channel 13 reporter Raviv Drucker said that there could be a third explanation for Netanyahu’s behavior, which serves as middle ground between the claim that he intended to carry out the deal and the claim that he had been duping Mozes: that Netanyahu had simply been trying to buy time and earn positive coverage that would help him win the election.
Netanyahu’s office responded to the report by saying he hadn’t been serious about implementing the deal, adding an accusation that “also tonight you are bringing a tendentious, criminal leak aimed at hurting Prime Minister Netanyahu… Whoever listens to the full recordings of Netanyahu’s talks with Mozes fully understands that Mozes is the one blackmailing and threatening Netanyahu — and Netanyahu just clarifies that he would react with a media attack on Mozes, as he indeed did during the election campaign.”
Mozes’s lawyers commented that there was no basis to interpret the talks as a bribery offer to Netanyahu or as any criminal act, particularly when Netanyahu initiated the talks and wasn’t being accused of bribery himself. “It seems like the media attack we are witnessing in recent days is an attempt to pressure the attorney general,” they said.
The conversations took place after a bill requiring Israeli newspapers to charge minimum fees passed the first of three readings in the Knesset in November 2014, apparently catching Netanyahu off guard. The legislation, dubbed the Israel Hayom bill, was drafted by then Zionist Union MK Eitan Cabel, who has faced police questioning in the case. Mozes is believed to have been the bill’s mastermind. Cabel has denied any wrongdoing.
Weeks after the bill was advanced, in December 2014, Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset, ushering in new elections and thwarting any efforts to further advance the legislation.
Netanyahu is facing fraud and breach of trust charges in Case 2000 and another case, Known as Case 1000, in which he is accused of receiving illicit gifts from wealthy benefactors. He is accused of breach of trust, fraud and bribery in the third case, known as Case 4000, in which he is suspected of pushing regulatory favors for Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, in return for ongoing positive coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news site.
Adelson, a business magnate, major political donor, and philanthropist who has given testimony in the investigations against Netanyahu, is not a suspect in any of the cases against the prime minister. His wife Miriam Adelson, an Israeli who was recently made the publisher of Israel Hayom, has also testified and is also not a suspect.
Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police and the state prosecution, designed to oust him from power.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to soon reach a decision on whether to indict Netanyahu in the three corruption charges against him. He aims to make the decision by mid-November, Channel 12 reported earlier this month. Other assessments suggested a decision would be made by year’s end.
The legal woes come as Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival, with the country’s unprecedented second election of the year again failing to provide him with a clear victory.
In last month’s election, neither Netanyahu nor his chief challenger, Benny Gantz, secured the required parliamentary majority to form a new government. Both men have expressed support for a unity government as a way out of the deadlock, but they remain far apart on who should lead it and what smaller parties would join them.
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