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Benjamin Netanyahu.(Photo by: REUTERS)
Analysis: Did Netanyahu cross the line with ‘Yediot’ publisher?
Would the country really be a worse place if Yisrael Hayom was less pro-Netanyahu?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot really say that law enforcement has nothing on him after the revelations about expensive cigars and champagne from rich supporters and the recording with Yediot Aharonot publisher Arnon (Noni) Mozes discussing the fate of Yediot and Yisrael Hayom.

That said, has he crossed the line – from ethically problematic and politically embarrassing – to criminal? Many more details are needed to understand the circumstances of the cigars and champagne gifts. But we can already make some observations about key issues regarding the Netanyahu/Mozes powwow.

The discussion focused on whether Yediot would take a softer tone with Netanyahu, in exchange for Yisrael Hayom starting to charge instead of being handed out for free, or suspending its weekend edition.

Some experts have correctly pointed out that, even if no money was offered or exchanged hands, the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence says that a bribe or illegal benefit can be almost any kind of concrete benefit; it does not need to be money.

If, in fact, Netanyahu as prime minister had any formal authority over Yisrael Hayom, an argument could be made that he took a bribe or violated public trust – if he ordered the paper to take actions against its interests which would directly benefit Yediot Aharonot in exchange for positive press coverage.

Yet, there are several issues with that.

First, Netanyahu has no formal authority over Yisrael Hayom. It is well known that the paper usually reflects his views and tries to portray him positively, but all of that is informal.

Sheldon Adelson, Yisrael Hayom’s publisher, is close to Netanyahu. It is possible he might take into account Netanyahu’s wishes and requests on a range of issues.

But at the end of the day Adelson does not take orders from Netanyahu.

Moreover, a major reason Adelson and Yisrael Hayom support Netanyahu is because of his right-wing ideology. If Netanyahu tacked to the center as part of a deal with Yediot, it is no sure thing that his treatment by Yisrael Hayom might not change.

Second, is what Mozes asked of Netanyahu regarding Yisrael Hayom. One option was that the paper charge its readers.

Does that sound illegal or against the paper’s interests? In fact, the paper loses money because it does not charge those readers.

This may be an ideological commitment, a tactic to undermine the competition – like Yediot – and to spread its right-wing ideology. But can charging subscribers be called “against its interests”? Ending the weekend paper distribution is more complex. But considering that the edition is free, would canceling it be unambiguously against its interests? And how exactly would this directly help Yediot? If they were the only two newspapers one might be able to see Mozes receiving a direct gain. But who can be sure what would happen if Yisrael Hayom made either of these changes? Or might the results be more complex, harder to predict, and not necessarily of benefit to Yediot in any provable way? It is also unclear what “more positive coverage” from Mozes could have meant.

Presumably, the offer did not mean there would never be any negative stories.

In addition, nothing came out of all of this. And it is unclear if the police can prove that either side was serious, or if it was all a staged conversation, with each side trying to trap the other (and tape or extort the other), as some have reported.

That leaves a lot of question marks for proving a criminal case.

Finally, there is the public interest.

Would the country really be a worse place if Yisrael Hayom was less pro-Netanyahu? Or if it was not given out for free and Yediot was less blatantly “anti” and more middle-of-the-road? Even if the transaction – as ugly as it was – might have produced some significant effect on the country, it is hard to see how far this can go.
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