Leaked recordings have revealed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to intervene in Israel’s media and communications policy, despite being forced to give up his position as Minister of Communications pending investigations into his alleged corruption.
Netanyahu served as communications minister between November 2014 and February 2017, but was forced to step down when allegations surfaced that he had used this role to provide regulatory benefits to media mogul Shaul Elovitch, the owner of Israel’s biggest telecommunications company Bezeq, in return for favourable media coverage.
In what has subsequently become known as Case 4000, Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust which, if found guilty, could see him serve up to ten years in prison.
Now newly-leaked recordings aired by Israel’s Channel 13 News have shown that, despite being forced to step down from his position and in full awareness of the pending investigations against him, Netanyahu continued to intervene in media and communications policy by leaning on replacement Communications Minister, Ayoob Kara.
In the recordings Netanyahu can be heard telling Kara to intervene in regulation in order to allow Channel 20 – which during that period was embroiled in a dispute with Israel’s Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, a governing body which regulates commercial TV stations – to broadcast news.
“Do you have a way to dissolve the Council?” Netanyahu can be heard asking Kara. The communications minister replies that he does, prompting Netanyahu to interject: “Why dissolve it? Let’s abolish it.”
“That’s the intention,” Kara assures the prime minister.
The recordings also show that, in order to quickly pass a law which would enable Channel 20 to bypass the council’s restrictions, Kara reached out to then Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
“I read [Hebrew-language business website] TheMarker… tell me, have you gone mad?” Netanyahu shouted at Kara: “‘Ayoob and Shaked?’ That’s what’s going to save Channel 20?”
“Yes, but I want her to pass the bill for me quickly,” Kara responded. “Ayoub, have you gone mad? They’re slowing it down,” Netanyahu yelled back.
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Responding to the leak in a statement, Netanyahu’s office said “the fact that he does not hold the communications portfolio does not negate his involvement in the realm of communications in his job as prime minister.”
The statement continued: “For years, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been leading an open campaign to encourage and diversify the media. [His] determination to create change and break the left’s monopoly on opinion in the media has made him and his family targets for attacks meant to rein him in.”
“Thank you for showing Prime Minister Netanyahu fighting like a lion to save Channel 20, the single prized possession of the right in broadcast media against the left that tried to shut it down,” it added.
Netanyahu has fought vehemently against leaks to the media, on Friday submitting a petition to Israel’s Central Elections Committee against “illegal leaks that are meant to harm the right-wing leadership and Likud’s success” in the upcoming general election on 17 September.
Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit yesterday issued a legal opinion stating that the petition should be rejected.
Netanyahu will likely now be searching for the source of the leak, with members of his Likud party today accusing Kara of being behind the disclosure. A vehement Netanyahu loyalist and long-time Likud Knesset Member (MK) until he failed to win a seat in April’s election, Kara has been quick to distance himself from any involvement, blaming “evil people” and a party “mole”.
“Right now, from here, I’ll go take a polygraph test if necessary and open myself up to any investigation,” Kara stressed, adding: “I would be happy if there was a comprehensive investigation that would find, once and for all, the mole working to undermine the entire system.”
Whether Netanyahu could now face another corruption investigation as yet remains unclear. Head of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party Benny Gantz – Netanyahu’s biggest election rival – labelled the revelations “Case 5000”. saying that “Netanyahu has lost it, he cares only for himself.”
Netanyahu faces two other graft investigations – dubbed Cases 1000 and 2000 – in which he is accused of receiving lavish gifts from influential businessmen and promising to curtail the circulation of Israeli daily Israel Hayom in return for favourable coverage in its competitor publication, Yedioth Ahronoth.
Netanyahu could also face charges related to a third case – often known as the “Submarine Affair” – after new revelations emerged linking him to a multi-million-dollar deal which has thus far ensnared several of his closest associates, among them two of his cousins.
Netanyahu is slated to attend a pre-indictment hearing on 2 October.