The corruption allegation that could turn Israel’s politics upside down
A corruption scandal broke out last week in Israel. Such allegations are usually not big news, but this time is different. The two most influential people in Israel were caught having a conversation that could take them both down, maybe reshuffling the entirety of Israeli politics.
One is Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister since 2009. Nobody in Israel’s political system is even close to his popular support and political skills. The other is Arnon (“Noni”) Mozes, publisher of the fiercely anti-Netanyahu newspaper, “Yedioth Ahronoth” (“latest news”). Their conversation was secretly recorded by Netanyahu’s head of office: records which were found during an unrelated police raid. To understand what they talked about and why the revelations are considerable news for Israeli politics, some background information is required.
Back in the late 2000’s, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was supported by “Yedioth Ahronoth”, took a dive in opinion polls as corruption allegations against him became more solid. As a right-winger, Netanyahu, who had already been Prime Minister from ‘96 to ’99, set his course to regain the position. But opposed by Mozes’s media empire, Netanyahu looked for help from the American conservative billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Adelson agreed, and found a completely free-of-charge newspaper called “Israel Hayom” (“Israel today”) that has taken a strong pro-Bibi stance, competing head-to-head with Mozes’s Yedioth Ahronoth. The newspaper, outwardly claiming to have a business plan based on commercials, is still running deficits. But it went on to publish more and more free copies, reaching the milestone of the most popular newspaper in Israel in 2010.
Much to Mozes’s agony, Netanyahu won the 2009 elections, and Yedioth Ahronoth became the even more hardline anti-Bibi newspaper on the market to this day. It lashes out against Netanyahu at any possible occasion, sometimes justified, but sometimes obsessively releasing reports on Netanyahu’s glamorous lifestyle, including his expenditure on ice cream or his wife’s alcohol preferences. Pro-Bibi Israel Hayom lashes back at Yedioth from time to time, always unclear if for business or political reasons.
Fast forward to 2014, to the two hostiles sitting in the same room, talking business.
According to Channel 2’s leaks, Mozes offered Netanyahu a complete u-turn in his newspaper. He offered to hire Netanyahu’s favorite journalists, to fire some of his fiercest Anti-Bibists, and to “keep him the Prime Minister for as long as he likes”. He offered all that, if Netanyahu will agree to limit his main competitor, Israel Hayom. How? “It can be legislated” said Netanyahu, “I just need to talk to Adelson”. The records also reveal the two met twice in 2014.
But for some reason, the deal didn’t work out. We can learn that by the fact that an opposition-led anti Israel Hayom bill was introduced in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) in late 2014, claiming that Israel Hayom is doing “predatory pricing” (handing out the newspaper for free, doesn’t get any cheaper than that) and should be forced to charge for their newspaper. The law was met by ambiguity in the general public (or, according to Israel Hayom’s own poll, by an utter rejection), but gained a majority in the Knesset. The vote divided the ruling coalition, as well as the opposition parties. Zehava Galon, the head of a hard-left opposition party, voted against the law in the preliminary vote and claims she was blacklisted in Yedioth Ahronoth for it. Her party member Ilan Gilon voted for it and received positive coverage like many of the law’s supporters. Despite Netanyahu’s best efforts, the law passed the preliminary vote. Mozes seemed to be able to control the political system without Netanyahu’s help. A few weeks later, Netanyahu initiated snap elections (which he won), and now admits this was his way to bury the law before it would get approved.
So what will happen now, after the tapes were revealed? Anything could happen at this point. Netanyahu and his great rival Mozes may face bribery charges. If Mozes goes down, many of his loyal allies in politics could go down with him. Both the media and the political sphere are facing turmoil, and there are rumors that Netanyahu might call another snap elections in order to secure another term.
For the first time in many years, the unbeatable “King Bibi” might not be the next Prime Minister.
For me, as an Israeli Libertarian, this is a powerful example of how politicians trade in our freedom of speech and other liberties as their interest requires. It’s demonstrative for how powerful corporations like Mozes’s empire can turn corrupt when the option of limiting their competitors through legislation is open to them. I have opposed the “Israel Hayom law” not because I’m a Netanyahu supporter (I’m very far from being one) but because no politician should limit our freedom of speech and freedom of press, for any reason.
In Israel and in the entire world, the press’s interests are exposed. But the answer for this is not limiting the old media, but rather investing in new one, that can make the voices of the people be heard. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the basis which a free society lies upon, and so should be defended, just like Voltaire said all these centuries ago, to the death.
Picture: reative Commons Utenriksdepartementet UD
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