In issue 468 of November 5, 2010, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's political sources discussed the motives behind the efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint Defense Minister Ehud Barak's chosen candidate Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as the Israel Defense Forces' 20th chief of staff.
They were not just motivated, according to our sources, by the importance of having a hawkish army chief who would not hesitate if the need arose to take on Iran, Hizballah, Hamas or even Syria. The appointment was also intended to strengthen Netanyahu and Barak in their life-and-death struggle with powerful political, business and media interests determined to bring them down and install opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima in their place.
Four months ago, DEBKA-Net-Weekly dug below the surface for the essential dynamic behind the dispute which has never been brought fully out in the open.
One key figure is Arnon (Nonny) Mozes, proprietor of Israel's biggest media empire. As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported in its first exposé two months ago, this newspaper magnate is wielding his empire, which branches out from the Yediot Aharonot (Latest News) tabloid to cable television, the financial daily Globes and many other outlets, to fight Netanyahu tooth and nail on every possible policy issue.
Apart from personal antipathy, Mozes feels driven to topple the prime minister on business grounds. His empire is bitterly challenged by the free tabloid Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today) established by Jewish-American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, CEO of Las Vegas Sands, which comes out Monday to Friday.
Sheldon is solidly behind Netanyahu, whereas Mozes is gambling heavily on opposition leader Livni.
Gen. Galant targeted as tool for destroying the Netanyahu-Barak duo
In less than a year, Israel Today has climbed to the number two slot whereas Yediot Aharonot's circulation is plummeting. His media chain is taking heavy losses except on the daily's weekend edition.
Mozes, a tycoon by Israeli standards, cannot match Sheldon's bottomless resources. He was dismayed to discover he does not have enough cash to compete with the casino mogul.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources reveal that in early January, Mozes set up a secret meeting with the prime minister to make him a proposition: Netanyahu would urge Adelson to close Yisrael Hayom and get out of the media business in Israel, in return for which Mozes would personally pledge to drop the relentless media campaign against him, Barak and Galant and fully support them – and not only in his newspapers but also cue other domestic media which take the lead from his papers to go along with him.
After taking a few days to think it over, Netanyahu turned him down.
Mozes was ready for this: When the government approved Galant's nomination on Defense Minister Ehud Barak's recommendation, he pulled out a thick dossier compiled by his reporters and Kadima activists, led by MK Haim Ramon. It contained documents demonstrating that the designated chief of staff had made false depositions concerning an alleged land grab when he built his moshav home some years ago.
The allegations topped news headlines in every newspaper and TV news channel.
Barak fights back with a new party, rids cabinet of naysayers
With only a few days to go before Galant took up his appointment, Mozes counted on the media uproar aborting it at the last minute. Defense Minister Barak would be humiliated into resigning, Netanyahu faced with the option of bringing the opposition Kadima party into his coalition government or crashing. A new government would owe Mozes and his media outlets a debt of gratitude and be willing to introduce a law barring the distribution of free and foreign-owned newspapers.
But the dominoes stopped falling after Galant; they were kept upright by a move which shook the entire political system.
On January 17, shortly after the Netanyahu-Mozes interview, Barak quit as chairman of the Labor party and broke away to establish a new party called Atzmaut (Independence). He took with him five Knesset Members, reducing Labor to eight, three of whom resigned their ministerial portfolios.
All eight promptly headed for the opposition benches. Atzmaut stayed in the government coalition and each of its five members won a cabinet seat.
The object of Barak's move was partly to get rid of the three Labor ministers who had collaborated with Mozes' campaign to topple the government, while also imparting greater cohesion and stability to the Netanyahu government.
Netanyahu looks forward to full term
The prime minister and defense minister, who worked together smoothly for the government's first two years in office, are looking forward to a full-term and running for a second two years at the head of a new centrist-conservative political bloc. Likud and Atzmaut can continue to count on the backing provided by Adelson and his free newspaper.
Barak was predictably stigmatized as a renegade from the left-wing camp and faulted for his choice of chief of staff. Well into early February, instead of the protests in Egypt, Israel's media were highlighting wide- and low-angle shots of Galant's residence marked with red lines depicting the extent of the land he grabbed.
As the scandal evolved, it turned out that the land dispute reported had happened decades ago and ended in a compromise for the return of the disputed land to its claimants.
Galant had never been charged in court or accused of criminal offences. Nonetheless, the State Controller and Attorney General ruled against his appointment. They were later accused by the author of Israel's military code, Prof. Asa Casher of Tel Aviv University and a large group of jurists and professors as having been unduly influenced by the media campaign to crucify Galant.
Adelson is still going strong
But the damage was done and the most urgent thing now was to cool the hullabaloo and settle on the next chief of staff. While voicing full confidence in Gen. Galant, Netanyahu cancelled his appointment and nominated the former deputy chief of staff, the highly experienced Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz in his stead.
The tug-o'-war thus far may be summed up in a few words.
Did Mozes get what he wanted out of the Galant scandal? Not really. He put Netanyahu and Barak and their personal reputations on the block and forced them to drop their preferred candidate for chief of staff.
Both came out of the ordeal frayed at the edges but still in place. The government survived and does not look like falling any time soon. Even if a snap election becomes unavoidable, the Likud-Atzmaut alliance would probably come out ahead with enough votes to lead the next government because of the opposition's weak popular standing.
Did Mozes manage to stop Adelson and his plans for expansion in their tracks?
Not at all.
In fact, the dust he raised has spawned an alliance between Sheldon and Mozes oldest rival, the second veteran tabloid Maariv, Israel's third largest paper The new partners are launching a campaign to offer free iPods carrying only their own adverts to hundreds of thousands of new subscribers.
This ends the second tussle around leading power groups. There are almost certainly more to come.