TEL AVIV, Israel—When Sheldon Adelson died last month, Benjamin Netanyahu lost the kind of benefactor that most politicians only dream of having.
Adelson, a Jewish-American casino magnate, spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to help Netanyahu amass power and keep his job as prime minister longer than any other Israeli leader.
Now, even in his death, Adelson is helping Netanyahu.
Israeli prosecutors who brought corruption charges against the prime minister in complicated indictments involving bribery and influence pedaling with the biggest media conglomerates in the country had been counting on Adelson’s testimony to win a conviction.
But Netanyahu’s lawyers had managed to delay the proceedings several times—citing the COVID crisis. When the defendant finally appeared in court on Monday to formally respond to the three indictments, legal analysts noted how the timing worked in his favor.
“Obviously, if you have Adelson healthy testifying in court, it would have been very powerful for the prosecution,’’ said Yonah Bob, an author and legal correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, who covers the trial.
Meanwhile, the Hebrew-language newspaper that Adelson founded, Israel Hayom, and that his wife Miriam runs, continues bolstering the Israeli right and serving as a loyal mouthpiece for Netanyahu, helping raise his chances of winning yet another election next month.
“His political impact continues after his death,’’ said Nati Toker, who covers media for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. It’s pretty absurd that someone passes away and continues to have an enormous political impact on Israeli society.”
Adelson founded Israel Hayom 14 years ago as the country’s first free daily newspaper. Its circulation quickly overtook that of the powerhouse Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, even as Adelson sustained huge financial losses. The newspaper also pushed down print advertising rates, which helped wreck the business model of other Israeli newspapers.
Israel Hayom delivered reliably favorable news and opinion, helping power Netanyahu’s political comeback in 2009. But Netanyahu, who has complained throughout his career about what he perceives as media bias, also sought to exercise influence over other news outlets, including Yedioth Ahronoth.
In one of three corruption case again Netanyahu, known as Case 2000, prosecutors say he maneuvered to get more favorable coverage from Yedioth in return for legislation that would have cut into Israel Hayom’s circulation.
Police questioned Adelson about the affair. Apparently angry that Netanyahu would consider harming his newspaper, he lashed out at the prime minister, according to leaked transcripts. His courtroom testimony was expected to be damaging to Netanyahu.
Still, his death does not mean the prime minister is out of legal danger. Netanyahu faces multiple graft charges in two additional cases, known as Case 1000 and Case 4000—which don’t involve Adelson. Moreover, legal analysts say that Case 2000 is not lost either for the prosecution.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu is charged with bribery for allegedly trying to influence another Israeli news outlet—Walla! News—by offering to ease telecommunications regulations that would have made the business of Walla! News’s owner more profitable. The bribery charge in Case 4000 is the most serious of all the cases. A conviction and would likely result in a jail sentence and end his political career.
On Monday Netanyahu responded briefly in court to indictments in all three cases, reiterating his not-guilty plea.
The case involving Adelson includes other apparently strong evidence. In leaked recordings, Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth owner Arnon Mozes are heard discussing a deal which involved the prime minister supporting legislation to weaken Israel Hayom.
The deal never came to fruition; Yedioth Ahronoth remained critical of Netanyahu and the government never placed any limits on Adelson’s newspaper. Netanyahu claims that he was merely trying to expose Mozes’ bribe attempt, and that he never took any action.
But Adelson told police investigators a different story: The casino magnate described a meeting with the prime minister in which Netanyahu, according to the indictment against him, “requested Adelson limit the circulation of Israel Hayom.”
Adelson’s account “was excellent from the standpoint of the prosecution,” wrote Baruch Kra, the legal affairs commentator for Israel’s Walla! News website.
Adelson’s account would appear to contradict the prime minister’s claim that he had no intention of following through on the deal with Mozes. Having one of Netanyahu’s most prominent allies on the stand speaking against him could have significantly affected both the public perception of the trial and the legal battle itself.
“Here’s Adelson saying that ‘[Netanyahu] came to me saying [the deal] was a real thing that he was serious about, and that he wanted me to follow through so he could make this deal,’” said Bob. “That was a big problem for Bibi.”
Israelis have nicknamed Adelson’s paper “Bibiton,” a portmanteau that combines the prime minister’s nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper. Though Israel Hayom hired prominent columnists in its early years who were not reflexively loyal to Netanyahu, critics denigrated it as a propaganda sheet. Right wing politician Avigdor Lieberman likened it to “Pravda” the mouthpiece of Soviet Communist Party. Adelson defended the newspaper, saying that he established Israel Hayom in order to diversify Israel’s media landscape and to break Mozes’ dominance.
“It was more propaganda than a newspaper,’’ said Miki Rosenthal, a former Knesset Member from the left-wing Labor Party and a journalist. “It wasn’t merely a right-wing paper. It was a means to support a leader.”
Adelson lost hundreds of millions of dollars keeping the newspaper afloat, according to Rosenthal. He said in August of last year the paper had operating losses of roughly 20 million to 30 million dollars a year. Critics of Israel Hayom have said Adelson’s spending on the newspaper was tantamount to a massive political contribution.
While the paper remains reliably right-wing and generally supportive of Netanyahu, it has stopped running articles with favorable coverage of his family, say media analysts.
“Nowadays…you can see some criticism,” said Oren Persico, a columnist at the Israeli media website, The Seventh Eye. “But when it’s really important to be behind Netanyahu, they’re behind him.”
In fact, the newspaper could become even more staunchly pro-Netanyahu with Miriam Adelson running it on her own (she took over as publisher of Israel Hayom in May, 2018, and occasionally pens front-page editorials). Ms. Adelson, who received the U.S. Medal of Freedom from President Trump in late 2018, is viewed as even more hawkish than her husband and remains close to Netanyahu despite the fallout from the legal case.
“Every day there’s a banner headline, and you know very well it wasn’t written by an objective newspaper staff. It’s written via a decision from above,” said Toker of Haaretz.
“His impact continues after his death.”