Netanyahu’s Tape Scandal: Israel’s Government as Protection Racket

The revelations by my colleague Gidi Weitz regarding details of the conversations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes require the rewriting of Israel’s political history. That way we can make it clear what the election campaign two years ago was all about.

It wasn’t about the Iranian threat or the replacing of elites. It was about dividing the spoils between two members of the power elite who view control of the country as a protection racket and Israeli citizens as pawns.

Netanyahu in the Likud election headquarters after the release of the exit polls, March 18, 2015.
Netanyahu in the Likud election headquarters after the release of the exit polls, March 18, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The election that was brought forward to March 2015 was the peak of a struggle for control. It began with Mozes’ suggestion to divide the loot and ended in a boxing match in which Netanyahu, with the help of free daily Israel Hayom, prevailed over Mozes’ candidates – Isaac Herzog, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. The police investigation into Mozes and Netanyahu could reset the whole game if it ends in indictments and a change in government.

To Netanyahu’s credit, it must be said that throughout the campaign he ignored the leaders of the rival parties and consistently argued that his real rival was Mozes.

Thus, for example, on February 9, 2015, some five weeks before the election, Netanyahu tweeted: “It’s time to put everything on the table. The primary force behind the wave of mudslinging against me and against my wife is Noni Mozes. He will stop at nothing to bring down the Likud government I head, to close Israel Hayom and restore Yedioth’s aggressive control over the print press.”

That’s just one example of the innumerable prime ministerial posts and Israel Hayom articles that portrayed Mozes as a powerful puppet master, Israeli’s real ruler who pulls the strings of the politician-marionettes.

At the time this criticism looked excessive, certainly when Netanyahu and his mouthpieces went beyond just slamming Mozes’ aggressive ambitions to accuse him of supporting “the left.” Now it turns out that Netanyahu was neither lying nor exaggerating; he knew the facts from the horse’s mouth, from his secret talks with Mozes, and certainly from other contacts between them that have yet to be revealed.

But Netanyahu never told the public the whole truth. He concealed his willingness to discuss with the czar of the evil empire a deal in which the prime minister would enjoy favorable coverage in Yedioth Ahronoth, in exchange for protection money in the form of weakening Israel Hayom. Netanyahu looks like a business owner who enjoys the backing of one bully but is willing to trade for stronger backing by the boss of the rival gang.

Protection has a price, which my colleague Uri Blau revealed on Monday: Israel Hayom during its first seven years of publication lost 730 million shekels ($190 million at current exchange rates). If this hemorrhaging has continued at the same rate, the loss comes to around a billion shekels.

That’s the sum Israel Hayom founder Sheldon Adelson has spent to bring his friend Netanyahu back to power and keep him there. If Netanyahu was willing to replace Adelson’s support with Mozes’, he presumably believed having Yedioth in his corner was worth even more.

Adelson is familiar with his rival’s modus operandi, often calling it the carrot-and-stick method. Adelson told Israel Hayom in 2014: Mozes “says to people, ‘If you don’t give me what I want, I am going to whip you, I am going to hit you with a stick; and if you give me what I want I will give you the carrot and some sugar and some candy and some ice cream.’”

It isn’t clear if Adelson knew that Netanyahu was seriously thinking of replacing him as the sponsor of his government, and how he’ll react to the revelations that make him look like the weak element in the equation.

It will be interesting to see if the ongoing revelations also expose the mechanism by which Israel Hayom operated on behalf of the prime minister. How do they come up with the headlines on the front page, which looks like a page of Netanyahu’s talking points? Does Netanyahu dictate them, or are the paper’s executives the ones who dictate policies and positions to the prime minister as a condition for his continued favorable coverage?

Did the talks with Mozes include details of an alternative mechanism meant to be set up at Yedioth? Did Mozes demand that Netanyahu change his positions – suggesting, perhaps, that Netanyahu actually pursue the creation of the Palestinian state he promised in his Bar-Ilan speech? Or was he willing to settle for just getting the financially threatening freebie out of the way?

Nonigate demonstrates what every journalist and intelligence agent knows: Even the most covert processes express themselves publicly in some way. The last election campaign was no more than the result of the failed discussions between Netanyahu and Mozes over dividing the spoils.

The premier’s critical social-media posts simply reflected his frustration over the failure of the negotiations and his fear that he would be forced out of power by Mozes’ power. Netanyahu’s insistence on serving as communications minister in the current government was a natural outcome of those developments and seemed to him the perfect recipe for perpetuating his rule.

It’s just too bad that one thing doesn’t interest the prime minister: the interests of the Israeli people.

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