Over the past week, Israel was subjected to the diplomatic equivalent of a lynch mob in Paris. It received unexpected assistance from Britain, which twice in two days departed from its traditional anti-Israel stance and blocked the Paris conference’s anti-Israel declaration from being adopted as the official position of the European Union.
Also over the past week, outgoing US President Barack Obama, outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry and outgoing UN Ambassador Samantha Power used their final appearances in office to blast Israel.
On the other hand, President-elect Donald Trump and his team played a key role in bringing about Britain’s change of heart toward Israel.
While these events have been widely covered by the foreign media, they have barely been mentioned in the Hebrew broadcast media, from which the majority of Israelis receive their news.
Instead, led by Channel 2 with its monopoly ratings share, the local media spent the past week covering almost nothing but the criminal probes being carried out against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is the subject of two probes. The first, which police investigators dubbed Affair 1000, involves allegations that Netanyahu improperly received gifts from his friends.
That probe seems to be withering on the vine. Consequently, over the past week, most of the media’s attention has been focused on what the police call Affair 2000.
Affair 2000 involves conversations Netanyahu conducted two years ago with Israel’s most powerful media mogul, and Netanyahu’s public nemesis, Yediot Aharonot chairman Arnon Mozes. Mozes is Netanyahu’s bitter foe because for the past 20 years, Yediot’s coverage of Netanyahu has been virulently hostile.
Affair 2000 itself, the media coverage it has garnered and the way the police are conducting their probe all raise deeply troubling questions about key institutions that are supposed to safeguard Israeli democracy and our rule of law.
To understand the affair and the concerns it raises, Affair 2000 must be placed in its proper context.
In November 2014, the government fell and the Knesset voted to go to elections barely a year after the previous elections were held.
Whereas generally a government falls because the opposition gains the votes to bring it down in a no-confidence vote, in 2014, Netanyahu caused his own government to fall and precipitated early elections.
Netanyahu took the drastic step, which placed his own future in jeopardy, because the heads of three parties that were members of his governing coalition colluded against him in a host of common actions that made governing impossible.
The straw that broke Netanyahu’s back was when the three rebellious ministers – then-justice minister Tzipi Livni, then-Treasury minister Yair Lapid and then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman – decided to support the passage of the draft “Israel Hayom law.”
The bill, which was sponsored by Labor MK Eitan Cabel, would have outlawed the free distribution of national newspapers. It was dubbed the Israel Hayom law, because the paper founded in 2007 and owned by Netanyahu’s supporter US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, is a free paper.
The goal of the draft legislation was to shut down Israel Hayom. Thanks to Livni, Lapid and Liberman, the bill passed its first reading in the Knesset with a vote of 43 in favor and 23 opposed.
Netanyahu vociferously opposed the bill. He and his Likud party voted against it.
With that context in mind, we can return to Affair 2000.
Netanyahu’s conversations with Mozes took place around the 2015 elections. Fearing Mozes intended to extort him, on the advice of his personal attorney, Netanyahu surreptitiously recorded the discussions.
The police discovered his recordings in the course of a separate probe of Netanyahu’s former adviser who had a copy of the recorded conversations on his mobile phone.
Channel 2 has opened its primetime news broadcasts nearly every night this past week with selected minutes from their recorded talks.
Netanyahu’s conversations with Mozes related to the Israel Hayom draft law. From Channel 2’s excerpts, we learned that Mozes offered Netanyahu to improve Yediot’s treatment of the premier if Netanyahu would convince Adelson to substantially curtail Israel Hayom’s distribution and if Netanyahu would agree to limit government advertisements that run in the daily paper.
Mozes told Netanyahu that if the premier accepted his offer, he would see to it that Netanyahu remained in power for as long as he wished.
The flipside, although unstated – at least in Channel 2’s excerpts – was clear. If Netanyahu rejected Mozes’s offer, Yediot would continue its campaign to bring down Netanyahu.
The end of their discussions is public knowledge.
Netanyahu brought down his own government and disbanded the Knesset rather than allow the legislative process to continue. His 2015 campaign centered on Netanyahu’s opposition to Mozes and Yediot.
The opposition’s campaign against Netanyahu on the other hand, was based largely on negative articles related to Netanyahu and his family that ran daily in Yediot.
In other words, Netanyahu rejected Mozes’s offers and the two went to war.
Although Yediot supports the Left and Israel Hayom supports Netanyahu, Mozes’s opposition to Israel Hayom wasn’t ideological.
His willingness to skew his paper’s coverage in favor of Netanyahu showed that Mozes’s attempt to destroy Israel Hayom stemmed solely from financial considerations.
In 2006, Yediot had a monopoly share of the print media market on weekends and dominated the weekday editions as well. Its closest competitor, Maariv, had half the sales that Yediot had.
Israel Hayom ended Yediot’s monopoly and lowered its advertising revenues. So if Israel Hayom were to close, the most direct and significant beneficiary would be Yediot Aharonot. And everyone knew this.
As justice minister, Livni chaired the Ministerial Committee on Legislation that controls in large part which bills will be brought before the Knesset. Ahead of the committee’s discussion of the Israel Hayom bill, then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein issued a legal opinion which reasonably argued that the bill was unconstitutional because its aim was to specifically target one business for bankruptcy, because it harmed consumers and the economy, and because it sought to undermine the free press.
During the 2015 campaign, Livni acknowledged that she spoke with Mozes about the bill before it was discussed in her committee. Mozes, she said, also furnished her with a legal opinion authored by his private attorneys. Predictably, that opinion argued the bill was constitutional, was not prejudicial and would be great for the economy.
Livni rejected Weinstein’s opinion and enabled the bill to go forward. Yediot supported her lavishly during the election campaign.
AFFAIR 2000 is troubling first and foremost because of what is not being investigated.
Netanyahu, who refused to make a deal with Mozes, is being investigated as a criminal suspect for speaking to him.
Livni, who also spoke to Mozes, as well as Liberman, Lapid and 40 other members of Knesset who may have spoken with him, and who voted in favor of the bill that Mozes worked so hard to pass into law, are not being investigated.
How is it possible that police investigators aren’t interested in finding out if Mozes made any offers that were accepted? Why aren’t investigators checking whether there were changes in the volume of positive coverage that Livni, Lapid, Liberman and their colleagues received after they announced their support for his bill?
This brings us back to the media. Night after night, television viewers have been subjected to saturation coverage of Affair 2000 that distorts more than it reveals. Netanyahu is presented as a corrupt politician willing to destroy a newspaper to advance his own career even though he did nothing of the sort.
The 43 MKs who actually did something to destroy the paper are given a pass.
The distorted reports have clearly had an impact.
In a poll conducted by Channel 2 to check the effectiveness of its reporting, a majority of Israelis said that they believe Netanyahu behaved dishonestly in relation to his conversations with Mozes.
At least as far as Channel 2 is concerned, the way to correct the problems Affair 2000 exposed is obvious.
Just as Israel Hayom broke Yediot’s market monopoly so Channel 2’s broadcast monopoly must end.
The government must deregulate the broadcast media. It needs to sell broadcast licenses to anyone who has the funds to purchase one.
The problem with police investigators is unfortunately more difficult to contend with. According to independent investigative journalist Yoav Yitzhak, Netanyahu decided not to turn his recordings of Mozes over to the police despite the fact that they contained apparent evidence of extortion, or at a minimum the offer of a bribe, because he doesn’t trust police investigators.
Yitzhak reported on his website that Netanyahu told his close associates this week that he found out that the police’s senior investigators, Asst.-Chiefs Manny Yitzhaki and Ronny Ritman, had close relationships with hostile journalists from Channel 10, Haaretz and Yediot. He was concerned that if he brought them the evidence he had gathered against Mozes, the investigators would use the evidence as a means to open new criminal investigations against Netanyahu with the aim of destroying him politically.
The Prime Minister’s Office has not denied Yitzhak’s report. Assuming it accurately reflects Netanyahu’s thinking, it means that the prime minister believes the police are corrupt and politically motivated.
Certainly the police investigators’ selective investigation of Netanyahu since Affair 2000 broke seems to back up his feelings.
Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich promised this week that the probes of Netanyahu will be concluded shortly. But even if Netanyahu is cleared of suspicion, the concerns raised by Affair 2000 will linger and grow if not dealt with.
Israel is on the precipice of a major shift in its international position. Trump’s rise, along with the weakening of the EU with Britain’s Brexit vote, means that Israel faces opportunities it hasn’t enjoyed in 50 years.
The concerted effort by the media with the apparent collusion of the police to undermine and overthrow Netanyahu at the dawn of this new era isn’t merely unjust. It is anti-Zionist, anti-democratic and dangerous for the future of the state.