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Wealthy backers desert Netanyahu

Publisher and owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes arrives for questioning at the Lahav 433 investigation unit in Lod on January 15, 2017. Photo by Koko/Flash90

Supreme Court: Netanyahu must reveal when he talked to mogul Adelson

Reversing lower court decision, judges rule that PM’s discussions with billionaire owner of Israel Hayom daily a matter of public interest

By Raoul Wootliff, Times of Israel
August 07, 2017

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday August 7th, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must publicize the dates of his phone calls with conservative American Jewish gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, a major financial backer and publisher of the free newspaper Israel Hayom.

According to the ruling, the prime minister will also need to disclose the dates of phone conversations with Amos Regev, the former editor-in-chief of the daily.

Israel Hayom is widely regarded as strongly pro-Netanyahu in its orientation and the phone calls could shed light on the extent of any links between Netanyahu’s administration and the daily — as well as any possible conflicts of interest.

The decision comes as Netanyahu faces deepening legal trouble in a group of criminal probes, including suspicions that he tried to arrange more favourable coverage from the publisher of a rival publication in exchange for curbing Israel Hayom’s circulation numbers.

The court decision accepted an appeal by Channel 10 journalist Raviv Drucker and overturned a 2016 ruling of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, which in turn had overturned a previous 2015 Jerusalem District Court ruling ordering the information be released.

The reports had originally been requested in accordance with the Freedom of Information Law on the grounds that the information is of public interest.

Amos Regev, then chief editor of Israel Hayom daily newspaper arrives for questioning in the so called ‘Case 2000’ affair at the Lahav 433 investigation unit in Lod, January 17, 2017. Photo by Roy Alima/Flash90

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that as Netanyahu served as communications minister at the time of the original petition and was therefore “responsible for government policy towards Israel’s media,” there was particular significance in the request to publish the details of his talks with the owner and editor of Israel’s most widely distributed paper.

“The public interest in releasing this information outweighs the considerations for Netanyahu and Adelson’s right to privacy,” Justice Menachem Mazuz wrote in the ruling.

Nirit Blair, the head of the Movement for the Freedom of the Information, said that the court’s ruling shows that public figures cannot use their right to privacy to avoid public scrutiny.

“The court’s ruling clarifies that it is no longer possible to hide in secret on claims of privacy in order to evade public criticism. At the end of the day,privacy is meant to protect us the citizens and not the government and the owners of capital and the press,” she said in a statement given to The Times of Israel.

Jewish-American billionaire Sheldon Adelson with PM Netanyahu at a ceremony at Ariel University in the illegal settlement of Ari’el, 28.6.17. Photo by Ben Dori/ Flash90

Since its founding a decade ago, Israel Hayom has been staunchly loyal to the prime minister. Its unfailing support of Netanyahu has been characterized by the playing down of his failures, the hyping of his achievements and the lashing of his critics. Furthermore, it has shied away from praising his rivals.

But media analysts have noted a shift in its coverage of late that may suggest a cooling in the paper’s support for Netanyahu and his family in recent weeks.

Netanyahu is currently a criminal suspect in “Case 2000,” investigating an alleged quid pro quo deal with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes in which the two seemed to discuss an illicit agreement that would have seen the prime minister hobble Israel Hayom, in return for more favourable coverage from Yedioth.

On Friday, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, turned state’s witness, agreeing to provide testimony in the case as well as another investigation known as “Case 1000,” involving allegedly illicit gifts given to the prime minister by billionaire benefactors.

Police on Thursday explicitly said for the first time that a number of corruption investigations involving Netanyahu deal with “bribery, fraud and breach of trust.” The police stopped short of saying that the Israeli leader was directly suspected of these crimes.

Harow has reportedly told police that he was asked by Netanyahu to practically “advance matters” that came up in the Netanyahu-Mozes conversations.

Whereas Netanyahu reportedly has told investigators his conversations with Mozes were not actually related to concrete plans, Harow has told police he was ordered to take actions as a consequence of the Netanyahu-Mozes talks, Channel 2 said, noting there was a police gag order on much of Harow’s testimony.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former chief of staff Ari Harow.  And a lot of minders. Photo by Miriam Alster/ Flash90

Channel 2 reported last Friday that Harow reportedly gave police details on the understandings reached between Netanyahu and Mozes, strengthening the police case beyond recordings discovered on Harow’s computer of their meetings in late 2014 and early 2015.

This information comes from a separate police investigation into Harow’s affairs on suspicion that when he came back to work for Netanyahu in 2014, he only fictitiously sold his consulting firm, rather than genuinely doing so as was required.

Further complicating Netanyahu’s position, Adelson is said to have recently testified that Netanyahu spoke with him about the possibility of cancelling some of Israel Hayom’s weekend supplements, which would have reduced its appeal and its revenues, Channel 2 said.

Adelson, who has twice provided testimony in the investigation, has reportedly told police that Netanyahu had spoken with him about a matter of financial importance which he had discussed with Mozes, the Yedioth publisher.

Adelson is also reported to have said that he was “surprised, disappointed and angered” to learn of the conversations between Netanyahu and Mozes.

In addition to Adelson, his wife Miriam has also provided testimony in connection to the investigation. Neither of the Adelsons is suspected of wrongdoing in the case.

Raoul Wootliff covers crime, corruption and politics for The Times of Israel.

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