Israel's Maariv Newspaper Changes Hands, Its Future Remains Uncertain

As the Israeli press struggles for survival, it may be the Diaspora that rides in to the rescue as more foreign and foreign-born Jewish tycoons acquire media holdings.

The merger between Maariv and Makor Rishon is yet to be finalized, though the owners of the two newspapers, Nochi Dankner and Shlomo Ben-Zvi, shook hands last week on the deal to sell the Maariv titles, its website, distribution network and subscriber base for NIS 85m to Ben-Zvi's Hirsch Media. Even if it does go ahead, it is very unclear how much of the old Maariv will remain following the acquisition, how many of its journalists will remain with the paper (Ben-Zvi has committed to employing 300-400 of Maariv's two thousand present employees) and whether the intention is simply to subsume the 65 year-old newspaper into Makor Rishon's operations. Maariv's prospects are murky at best, but what has materialized is the virtual control of the Israeli right-of-center media in the hands of two English-speaking businessmen. (The other American investor in Israeli media is World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who owns 25 percent of Channel Ten, and may enlarge his holdings to save that embattled channel.)

While Israel Hayom, the Netanyahu-supporting daily paper, was founded and owned by American casino tycoon and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who over the last five years has bankrolled the free daily newspaper making it the widest-read newspaper in Israel, Ben-Zvi is a proprietor of an entirely different order. For a start, unlike Adelson, he has lived here for over three decades, since the age of fourteen, and most of his education was in Israeli yeshivas and the Hebrew University. (Full disclosure – this writer worked at Makor Rishon for a couple of years.)

The finances of Hirsch Media are unclear, but it is widely assumed that the funding for a decade of media acquisitions has come from Ben-Zvi's family's real estate holdings and investments in technology companies and from his father-in-law, Conrad Morris, a prominent British industrialist and leading donor to right-wing groups in Israel. Ben-Zvi's first media holding was the Tchelet Channel, a cable television outlet founded in 2003, focusing on Jewish cultural content that broadcasted for three years. He purchased struggling religious papers, including the National Religious Party's Hatzofe and settlers' monthly Nekuda, both of which he merged into another of his acquisitions, the right-wing weekly Makor Rishon, which in 2007 became a daily.

Makor Rishon under Ben-Zvi has undergone a number of transformations, but over the last few years has achieved a certain degree of stability as a slim weekday edition and a relatively thick Friday offering with a number of well-written supplements. Its politics have also fluctuated somewhat, having gone through periods of closely supporting Netanyahu, veering right-ward toward the more radical "Jewish-Leadership" faction within Likud and the far-right settler circles and more recently seeming most at home in the bourgeois religious community. "These shifts may seem like mere nuances to secular left-wing outsiders," says one veteran writer at Makor Rishon," but in a newspaper serving a tight-knit community, they make a major difference."

Like many Anglo-religious olim, Ben-Zvi who doubled as both owner and editor-in-chief of Makor Rishon for the last three years, has reflected multiple strands of Jewish and Israeli identity. He lives on the settlement of Efrat, more an affluent suburb of Jerusalem than a hilltop outpost, and while supporting resolutely right-wing positions, including the publication of a weekly column encouraging Jewish pilgrimage to the Temple Mount (of which Ben-Zvi is an enthusiast), the paper has been critical of violent "price tag" attacks on Palestinians. After one such attack, Ben-Zvi's own house was vandalized. And while the paper is very careful not to tread on religious sensibilities, it covers mainstream culture and entertainment and has no problem printing photographs of women.

Unlike Israel Hayom, Makor Rishon's columnists are divided between supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu's policies and those who criticize them from the right. Ben-Zvi was once active within Likud but has since distanced himself from party politics. An earlier attempt by Ben-Zvi to launch a free daily newspaper, together with Adelson, ended acrimoniously and is still the subject of a protracted lawsuit, has also contributed to the cooling of relations between Makor Rishon and the prime minister.

Makor Rishon covers Jewish Diaspora affairs in relative depth, as could be expected in a newspaper whose owner has family-ties abroad (his brother-in-law, Daniel Taub is Israel's ambassador in London) but the paper has yet to launch its planned website and talk of an English edition has so far failed to materialize.