JERUSALEM — Night after night over the past two weeks, at the top of the evening news hour, Channel 2 investigative reporter Guy Peleg has read aloud from leaked transcripts of secret recordings of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The revelations have dominated the news cycles — centered on alleged negotiations between Netanyahu and the publisher of Israel’s dominant newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.
Excerpts from transcripts of the taped conversations appear to suggest that the two were conspiring to improve the prime minister’s image while boosting the fortunes of the publisher.
The Israeli TV journalist reads from the leaked transcript, playing both characters.
The two antagonists, like a pair of boxers in the ring, appear to bob and weave, and wheel and deal, over which columnists to muzzle and which to promote and how to keep Netanyahu in the prime minister’s office and the financially strapped newspaper in the black.
Israelis are divided over who comes off worse: the media baron or the prime minister.
Even a die-hard Netanyahu critic told The Washington Post that the evening broadcasts felt like “Chinese water torture.”
The drip, drip, drip of alternatively embarrassing and damaging material continues, as a police investigation into Netanyahu enters a potentially career-altering phase: whether the prime minister should be charged with any crime.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is also under investigation for accepting thousands of dollars in Cuban cigars, French wines and other luxe goodies from wealthy businessmen with business to do in Israel and abroad.
The Israeli leader has waved away the swirling scandal, repeating his Twitter-ready line about the probes.
“They won’t come to anything,” Netanyahu says, “because there isn’t anything.”
The Israeli prime minister, alongside his lawyer and allies, have acknowledged that the two-year-old tapes are real but complain they are being edited for maximum damage and minimum context.
They say the leaks are designed to goose the attorney general to make indictments. Even weak, ultimately beaten charges could prove a mortal wound for Netanyahu in Israel’s shark-infested political waters.
Netanyahu has been “questioned under caution” by police investigators. So has the newspaper publisher.
“An incredible, orchestrated media campaign,” Netanyahu told his fellow Likudniks on Monday.
“They want my head,” the prime minister insisted to his party members, branding the media “both judge and executioner.” The Israeli leader promised, “There was no criminal offense.”
Netanyahu is in a tough spot. He can’t respond to the leaks in any detail, as the investigation is ongoing.
Life is unfair, but the probes are hurting Netanyahu with the public, at least in the short run. A poll released Friday by the newspaper Maariv found that 57 percent of respondents believe “the suspicions against the prime minister have substance.”
“A majority believes that there is fire behind the smoke, and a minority simply does not know. The attorney general will decide in terms of the criminal basis. Publicly, Bibi has a real problem,” wrote Maariv columnist Ben Caspit, using Netanyahu’s popular nickname.
The investigations have come to be called “Case 1000” and “Case 2000,” now household words.
Case 1000 began as the fun, frivolous one for most Israelis, about pink champagne and fancy cigars.
These gifts were allegedly given by the crate to the Netanyahus by Hollywood movie mogul Arnon Milchan, who produced “The Revenant,” “Fight Club” and “Pretty Woman,” among other credits.
On Friday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the prime minister’s staff may have used code words for the delivery of cigars, dubbed “leaves,” and blush champagne, dubbed “pinks,” allegedly a favorite of the prime minister’s wife, Sara, who the Israeli media delight in characterizing as a kind of Marie Antoinette.
Israeli media said the bill for the gifts over eight years could top $130,000. Milchan, an Israeli, lives in Los Angeles. More pricey gifts — including airfare and hotel stays for the Netanyahu family — were allegedly given by Australian businessman and billionaire James Packer, Mariah Carey’s former beau.
Netanyahu’s lawyers said there’s nothing wrong with friends giving friends presents — even a lot of presents. The Netanyahus told investigators that the dollar value has been exaggerated and that the couple reciprocated to their wealthy pals with gifts of their own.
And Case 2000? That was dubbed “the serious one” by the Israeli media but is harder to prosecute. It involves the tape recordings leaked to Channel 2 on conversations between Netanyahu and his sometime nemesis Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the publisher and owner of Yedioth Ahronoth and its online subsidiaries.
Yedioth Ahronoth is the most powerful newspaper in Israel. It used to be the most-read — and most profitable — until American casino magnate and Republican super-donor Sheldon Adelson launched a competitor called Israel Hayom, or Israel Today.
The Israel Today tabloid is free and is now the largest circulation newspaper in the country. Adelson is a political supporter and close confidant of Netanyahu’s (who in the tapes calls his patron “Ginger” for his red hair). Adelson’s newspaper is steadfast in its editorial boosting of Netanyahu. Critics say the newspaper loses money and is nothing more than a propaganda organ. Defenders say free newspapers are popular around the world and that their business model is sound.
In the “Bibi and Noni Show,” as some have taken to call it, Netanyahu complains about Yedioth Ahronoth’s negative coverage.
“Every day I have somebody who is killing me,” the prime minister complains, according to Channel 2, pleading with Mozes “to lower the level of hostility toward me from 9.5 to 7.5.”
Mozes tells Netanyahu the important thing is that he remain prime minister. They toss around the names of columnists who are tough on the prime minister and Mozes asks Netanyahu to name somebody else to bring to the paper to boost the Israeli leader. Mozes also appears to suggest that Netanyahu himself work harder to sway the commentators his way.
In the tapes, Mozes presses Netanyahu to pass a bill in the parliament that would weaken Israel Today and reduce its circulation.
In the fallout, Ron Yaron, editor in chief of Yedioth Ahronoth, penned a front-page “Letter to Our Readers,” expressing shock that his boss appeared to be ready to trade coverage for circulation. If that happened, Yaron promised, “all of us, in unison, would have quit and gone to look for a new home.”
One of the columnists named in the tapes is Yedioth Ahronoth’s veteran commentator Nahum Barnea, who told The Washington Post that Netanyahu’s behavior in recent years has become “Nixonian,” by turns paranoid and aggressive. “He sees journalists as part of some plot, always against him.”
Barnea said Israel is no place for a thin-skinned politician. “Netanyahu doesn’t like what I write? Fine. He can call me on the phone. I will listen. I am not so pure. I will not abandon my basic values, but if he has something to say, call me. I will listen. Don’t call my publisher.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.