In late October 2019, there were a wide variety of theories about whether Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit would indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the relatively new crime of “media bribery,” when he would decide and how the timing of coalition negotiations would impact when he would decide.
At the time, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz had narrowly won the second election, and some thought Mandelblit might indict Netanyahu while Gantz had the mandate to give Netanyahu a push out the door.
Mandelblit waited until after Gantz’s mandate had lapsed and the 21-day period for the Knesset to try to form a government (it failed, leading to a third round of elections). But the electoral calendar was never as critical to Mandelblit as an obscure court decision that came out on November 11.
Ten days after that court decision, the first in Israeli history to address the issue of “media bribery,” Mandelblit announced the media-bribery indictment against Netanyahu in Case 4000 (Bezeq-Walla Affair) and breach of trust in Case 2000 (Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair.)
Though Netanyahu ultimately was not charged with bribery in Case 2000, the breach-of-trust charge derives from his connection to an alleged media-bribery scheme with Yediot Aharonot owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes, who was charged with full-fledged bribery.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of influencing communications policy to make up to NIS 1.8 billion for Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage from the Walla news site (both Bezeq and Wall are owned by Shaul Elovitch).
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of undertaking concrete actions that were a conflict of interest to lead Mozes into thinking the prime minister was interested in Mozes’s offer of positive media coverage in exchange for convincing Israel Hayom owner Sheldon Adelson to reduce his competition with Yediot.
Netanyahu’s lawyers have been livid over these charges.
How is it, they ask, that every politician across the spectrum wheels and deals with the media all the time in access for positive coverage arrangements, yet only the prime minister gets charged with a crime?
How could Mandelblit indict Netanyahu for a nonexistent crime that no one had ever been indicted for before and is unheard of not only in Israel but on most of the planet?
Wasn’t such conduct proof of a political crusade: Bring down Netanyahu even if new nonexistent crimes must be invented?
They were especially irate because they said Netanyahu has faced decades of biased coverage against him, including in Yediot and Walla, and there was nothing wrong with trying to negotiate for better coverage like other politicians (especially since they deny he pushed for any communications policy beyond what was good for the country and or that he directed any systematic interference with Walla).
And where is the money, they ask?
Doesn’t bribery require cash in envelopes or at least expensive ties or approvals of questionable construction plans, like former prime minister Ehud Olmert was given?
Those supporting indicting Netanyahu for media bribery said he had gone way beyond standard negotiations with media over “access” for positive coverage. The real picture was of a man who had gained control of a big chunk of the media when his ally Adelson created Israel Hayom, they said, and the prime minister was now abusing the unique powers of his office to extend his control to other outlets. But this was all theory.
Then the November 11 decision came down, relating to the first media-bribery case ever in Israel – a February 2017 indictment filed against Ashkelon mayor Itamar Shimoni.
Readers may be scratching their heads, asking: Who is Shimoni, and why is the court ruling in his case so crucial in determining the prime minister’s fate?
Shimoni’s case is the first in which a court ruled on whether media bribery is a crime.
The decision was split: On one hand, the court said there was not sufficient proof to prove the charge specifically against Shimoni. But on the other hand, the court recognized that media bribery is a crime and even provided factors for future cases for how to evaluate whether the crime has occurred.
When Mandelblit and the prosecution indicted Netanyahu 10 days later, they could finally answer that the prime minister was not being singled out and that a court had recognized media bribery as a potential crime.
They admitted that “media bribery” does not have a long history, but now they could say they were just applying the same law to Netanyahu as they did to Shimoni.
Even if there is not a long history of media-bribery charges, they can argue this has more to do with media bribery growing as a phenomenon.
But the verdict acquitting Shimoni of media bribery – even as it convicted him of other forms of bribery and fraud – leaves an opening for Netanyahu’s lawyers.
They can now say the only time media bribery was raised, the court did not dare to actually convict.
A conviction for media bribery could fundamentally alter the relationships between the media and the press.
This would mean that if Netanyahu is convicted of media bribery, he would be the first.
Both during the trial, and if there is a conviction, Netanyahu’s lawyers can say the newness of the issue is a reason to give him the benefit of the doubt and leniency.
The question then becomes what the Jerusalem District Court judging Netanyahu will do with the careful analysis of whether and when media bribery could lead to a conviction performed by the court in the Shimoni case.
Mostly, the court let Shimoni off the hook because the period of time in which the media bribery was alleged to have occurred was so short and because there was such a small sample period of articles to analyze.
The attorney-general can now cite a court decision that media bribery is a valid charge and that it merely needs to be proven with sufficient evidence like any other charge.
Mandelblit can claim he has far more proof of Netanyahu’s participation in media bribery than the court had in the Shimoni case.
The court will need to decide which examples of slanted coverage it accepts in the Netanyahu case. But if it accepts even half of the examples the prosecution will present, that record will be much more extensive and cover a much longer period than what was presented against Shimoni.
Netanyahu’s lawyers will try to invalidate the examples and provide counterexamples where the Walla news site covered Netanyahu in a negative fashion.
They will also argue that Shimoni’s case was actually worse than Netanyahu’s, because he was given actual money (which no one claims in Netanyahu’s case), and yet he was not convicted of media bribery.
The prosecution will respond that the positive media coverage helped Netanyahu win the prime minister’s office and stay in office in 2015 and at other points, a nearly priceless trophy.
They will add that Elovitch made a profit of up to NIS 1.8b. by virtue of policy decisions Netanyahu made to help Bezeq.
But at the end of the day, three judges in Jerusalem will have the lonely task of deciding not only if they want to convict a prime minister, but if they want to make him the first person ever convicted of the controversial media-bribery charge.