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At first he thought it would be just another routine editorial meeting. Ronny Hadar, a reporter for Iton Tel Aviv, a local weekly, had published a report about the mayor of the neighboring city of Givatayim - but without getting the mayor's response. Nir Hefetz, who was then the paper's editor-in-chief, called Hadar and the news editor, Dudu Levy, into his office. The two expected some sort of reprimand, but they never suspected what was coming.

Hefetz went wild. "You're worthless!" he screamed at Hadar; his voice could be heard throughout the paper's editorial offices. "Do you want me to get rid of you? Your articles have no connection with reality!" Hadar, a soft-spoken, veteran reporter, was appalled. He left Hefetz's office in a daze, white as a sheet, and passed out, collapsing on the floor.

For about a quarter of an hour, concerned staff members of the paper hovered around him, trying to revive him and get him back on his feet. "I became hysterical," he recalls. When he was finally able to stand up, he was called back to Hefetz's office, and the editor-in-chief apologized for his behavior. Hadar, like many others who came into conflict with Hefetz, no longer works for Iton Tel Aviv.

Hefetz, for his part, is still prone to attacks of rage. He is now editor-in-chief of an entire chain of local papers, Yedioth Communications, of which Iton Tel Aviv is a part, and currently the only candidate for the post of director-general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA).

Since the fact of Hefetz's candidacy became known, staff members on the papers that make up Yedioth Communications have been calling their friends at IBA to warn them about what they can expect. Many of them are also entering various Internet forums, especially the culture forum of (the Hebrew Internet portal) Y-Net (which, like Yedioth Communications itself, is part of the empire dominated by the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth), and badmouthing Hefetz.

Hefetz is very worried about this barrage of stories about him on Y-Net, and has been attempting to put a stop to it over the past few days. He has also been trying to find out which journalists are behind the anonymous attacks.

Hefetz is well aware of the furor his candidacy has unleashed. Since the appearance of the first reports indicating that he was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's preferred candidate for the IBA post, he has called a number of journalists with whom he had run-ins. I have made mistakes, he tells them, but I have changed. Don't do anything to hurt me now, he implores his interlocutors, when I am so close to realizing my life's dream.

The Yedioth connection

How did Nir Hefetz, who only a decade ago was a junior municipal reporter for a local paper in the Sharon region, become the candidate for heading the IBA? Says Ra'anan Cohen (Labor), the cabinet minister in charge of the IBA, "I found myself in a certain situation. Ten people didn't want the job, including Shalom Kital [who heads the Channel Two news department] and Alon Shalev [former editor-in-chief of Yedioth Ahronoth]." In that situation, the minister explains, he decided "to give an opportunity to unknowns." Cohen admits that "at this moment I can't say whether I was right or not. We'll give him three to five months. He sat with me in my house and spoke for an hour and a half. I asked him tough questions. He promised to carry out a reform plan; people told me that he is very thorough, so why not give the young generation a chance? I will give him full backing, but I am not an insurance policy. I am also not thrilled at the fact that he is connected to Yedioth Ahronoth. That worries me, but he doesn't have shares in the paper, he only works there. What can I do, that's the way it is."

Cohen is making light of the ties between Hefetz and the owners of Yedioth Ahronoth, but many people are in fact very worried about this connection. The fact that a small number of people own very large chunks of the media in Israel is nothing to be scoffed at, and the feeling is that Hefetz's appointment as IBA director-general will allow Arnon (Noni) Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth, to expand his circle of influence even further, giving him effective control of the country's public broadcasting service.

It was not by chance that Hefetz was dubbed "Noni Mozes' errand boy." He owes Mozes his rapid advance in Yedioth Communications and is much esteemed by the boss, though not necessarily for the quality of his journalistic work. During the strike by print workers a year ago at Yedioth Ahronoth, Hefetz, as the top man in the chain of local weeklies, helped break the strike. The reporters on the weeklies were ordered to write, the editors were commanded to edit and the graphics were done in the offices of the local papers. From Mozes' point of view, Hefetz's performance was exemplary.

An expression of Mozes' esteem appeared last Friday in Yedioth Ahronoth, when the paper reported Hefetz's candidacy next to its logo, above the headline: "PM wants Nir Hefetz as IBA D-G." The message was clear. Not only the PM wants Hefetz as D-G - so does Yedioth Ahronoth. Tami Mozes, Arnon's sister and a former general manager of Iton Tel Aviv, is an ardent supporter of Hefetz's candidacy: "He's a wonderful guy, serious. He will make an excellent director-general."

Hefetz's name was put forward by the cabinet secretary, Gideon Sa'ar, and Sharon warmed to the recommendation immediately. Hefetz and Sa'ar are friends from their days as law students. Ra'anan Cohen didn't object to the proposal, maybe because he was certain that his man, Nachman Shai, would be the one to replace Uri Porath, the outgoing director-general. But everything changed at the last moment, and Cohen was stuck with Hefetz. Sources in the Prime Minister's Bureau smoothed over the appointment by claiming that Hefetz is not a political activist. But even if he's not active, it's obvious that his political leanings didn't hurt.

The papers he edited showed a definite right-wing slant. During the tenure of Ehud Barak as prime minister, they were sharply critical of Barak and his aides. When Sharon took over, the tone changed to the point where all the papers in the chain published a special edition devoted to good news. Hefetz is also friendly with National Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman and with Rami Navon, who was Likud director-general during Benjamin Netanyahu's tenure as prime minister. At the time, the possibility was raised by Netanyahu's aides that Hefetz would replace Shai Bazak as the prime minister's spokesman.

Shmuel Shem Tov, director-general of the Second Channel Authority and a former editor-in-chief of the Yedioth Communications chain (it was Shem Tov who appointed Hefetz editor of Iton Tel Aviv) says he knows Hefetz's political views: "But I never felt that his views trickled into his work. The very fact that people are disqualifying him makes me furious. It's not only the members of a certain clique that are fit for the job. I don't know if he is the most suitable candidate, but he is definitely a worthy candidate."

The reservations about Hefetz's appointment expressed by Nachman Shai, chairman of the board of the IBA, don't bother the Prime Minister's Bureau. "Shai will come to his senses quickly and understand that Nir Hefetz is better for him than a shark like Arnon Zuckerman" - an academic who once headed a commission that dealt with reforming the IBA - "who was also offered the job," says a Likud figure who is involved in the process of choosing the director-general.

On the way to becoming prime minister

Hefetz was delighted at the prospect of being the one to replace Porath. That Hefetz is ambitious is well-known to his colleagues. There is a positive side to this: he is very industrious, devoted to work - in fact, he works around the clock, seven days a week. "The problem," say many of those who know him, "is that the only thing that really interests him is the advancement of Nir Hefetz." These people say that have often heard him say that he sees his job at Yedioth Communications as the springboard to a political or business career. He used to say that he wanted to be a mayor, and has also spoken of his desire to run in the party primaries, be elected to the Knesset, and has even of dreamt of trying to become prime minister. On other occasions, he has said he would like to become editor-in-chief of Yedioth Ahronoth in the future. Given all this, it's clear why he is more than attracted by the idea of becoming director-general of the IBA. Clearly, it would be easier for him to realize his other ambitions from the seat at the top of the broadcasting authority.

In the past few days, Hefetz has kept a close eye on every move behind the scenes. He made it his business to know the exact time Ra'anan Cohen signed off on the required documents, and he consulted with attorney Amnon Zichroni about the possibility of filing libel suits against anyone who published inaccurate statements about him.

For years, Hefetz dreamed about the moment when the big opportunity would present itself. I did it all with my own two hands, no one gave me anything, he said this week. Hefetz, 36, was born in Haifa and attended the prestigious Reali School there; he moved to Herzliya with his family when he was 16. He now lives in Ra'anana with his wife, Orit, and their two children. In the army he served in intelligence and reached the rank of captain.

In the early 1990s he studied political science and law at Tel Aviv University. To help pay for his studies, he found a job as assistant spokesman of the Herzliya Municipality. Yossi Givati, the spokesman, objected, but Hefetz, utilizing mysterious connections, got the job - only to quit a few weeks later. Shortly afterward he tried to become the spokesman of the Housing Ministry. The minister at the time was Ariel Sharon. His office called the Herzliya Municipality to ask whether Hefetz would be suitable for the job. The answer was no.

Hefetz found work as a municipal reporter for Al Hasharon, a weekly in the Yedioth Communications chain. In a series of articles, he attacked the mayor of Herzliya, Eli Landau. Sources in the mayor's office claimed that Hefetz was out for revenge, for the way he had been treated by the municipality. After a time the attacks stopped, and Landau and Hefetz became close. Some journalists on the paper were impressed by Hefetz's courage. "He showed himself to be a true journalist, militant and uncompromising," says Ogen Shapira, a reporter for Al Hasharon. "Even though Landau was the mayor, Nir wasn't afraid and he kept at it."

Not everyone was so enthusiastic. Hefetz was close to local politicos, mostly from the Likud. Uzi Cohen, the deputy mayor of Ra'anana and a prominent Likud activist in the city, who was interviewed several times by Hefetz, says that "he was not parachuted into the job. He started from the ground up. He is cultured, cordial and courteous. He has a lot of qualities that I don't see in other people." As far as is known, Cohen is the only person who attributes cordiality and courtesy to Hefetz.

The editors at Al Hasharon warned Hefetz that he was too buddy-buddy with the local politicians. Papers that try to maintain professional standards try to keep a safe distance from politicians so that they can criticize them if the need arises. The editor of Al Hasharon, Avner Ne'emani, threatened to fire Hefetz if he didn't heed the warnings.

Hefetz formed better relations with Yoav Tzur, who replaced Ne'emani and is today the editor-in-chief of the chain of local papers published by Ma'ariv.

But then he ran into a new problem. Hefetz hadn't come to Al Hasharon to be a municipal reporter forever. He wanted to become the paper's news editor. Amnon Rabi, who was then the editor-in-chief of Yedioth Communications (he is now editor of the Tel Aviv local weekly Ha'ir), was against the appointment. A senior figure in the Yedioth Communications chain heard Rabi say that Hefetz was more of a politician than a journalist. Another source in Yedioth Communications remembers that the main reason for Rabi's objection to Hefetz was the mediocre grades Hefetz received in the vocational tests that were then used in the chain.

Hefetz made a switch and became a political analyst. Eldad Yaniv, then the deputy editor of Al Hasharon, remembers Hefetz as a journalist at the outset of his career "with huge political ambitions. He was plugged into Likud people. I didn't think he would get as far as he has." It was only when Shmuel Shem Tov replaced Rabi at Yedioth Communications that Tzur succeeded in appointing Hefetz news editor and deputy editor of the paper. Hefetz was delighted. He declared that he would show Amnon Rabi that he had made a mistake in not promoting him.

But things didn't go smoothly. The reporters didn't like Hefetz's aggressive style and were put off by his constant suspiciousness. "He suspected us of leaking reports to the competition. No one understood what he wanted from us," says a journalist who worked with him. In fact, Hefetz's suspicions were well-grounded. Some of the reporters on the paper had the feeling that under Hefetz's stewardship there were subjects they couldn't touch. When they got wind of stories on those subjects, all they could do was alert reporters from the other local weekly about them. Hefetz was furious. The quarrels he had with some of the reporters were very vocal. There were a lot of angry outbursts in which Hefetz seemed to lose control.

Ogen Shapira, one of the few journalists who is ready to defend Hefetz, says that in her view his anger stemmed from his perfectionism. "He demanded a lot from his staff," she says. "He could send you back to interview someone four times before he was satisfied with the result. He could call you in the middle of the night to talk about an article you'd written. On Saturdays, too, he would call to thank you for a good article or to apologize about some incident with him."

After two years as news editor, Hefetz wanted to move up. He tried to get a job as the editor of one of the weeklies in the Schocken chain, but was rejected. (Amos Schocken is the publisher of Ha'aretz.) Then he wanted to move to Iton Tel Aviv, but the editor-in-chief of that chain, Shmuel Shem Tov, refused to transfer him, claiming Hefetz had a problem relating to people and that he wasn't yet ready to work on a big paper. "I preferred that he get his first editor-in-chief assignment on a small paper," Shem Tov says. "I wanted him to grow more slowly. It's true that he had disagreements when he worked at Al Hasharon - he is a work horse, and those under him are not always happy with him, but the quarrels weren't a consideration."

In June 1996, Hefetz was given the editorship of the chain's local weekly in Petah Tikva, and in November 1997 he realized his dream of becoming the editor of Iton Tel Aviv. The circumstances of that appointment left hard feelings. The paper's editor, Yakir Elkarib, had gone to India for a long stay. Shem Tov himself became acting editor until his return. It was at this time that Hefetz came to the paper as editor of the news pages. A short time after Elkarib's return, he discovered that he was no longer the editor. Shem Tov had appointed Hefetz as editor-in-chief of the paper.

Reign of terror

From the start, Hefetz showed himself to be an excessive centralist, fearful of criticism and involved in the smallest details. He banned smoking in the editorial offices. He kept a suit in his office and recommended that the staff do likewise. When you interview politicians or businessmen, he told them, you should make a point of dressing properly. At the first editorial meeting, he placed his chair in the middle of the room and told the stunned staff that from now on he was the boss and that anyone who wasn't prepared to accept his authority was welcome to leave the room.

"Until he arrived, the editorial meetings were open and creative, but then they became unpleasant," says a journalist who worked for the paper. Hefetz told a young reporter who was constantly critical that he was no longer welcome at the meetings. You are a junior reporter, and relative to your status you talk too much, Hefetz told him. He asked columnist Yehuda Nuriel not to voice any criticism during the editorial meetings. "His work methods were like a battlefield," Nuriel says. "I didn't come to work in order to fight battles with other journalists."

One editorial meeting was especially dramatic. Hefetz was the only speaker. Most of the participants had the feeling that all he wanted to do was hand down orders and not hold a genuine dialogue. Journalist Yuval Natan, then a television critic on the paper and now the editor of a weekly called Rating, a TV Guide-type magazine, told Hefetz that the time had come for him to stop issuing orders and to stop treating the staff like new recruits. You're in the wrong profession, he told Hefetz, and stalked out. Around the same time, many other staffers were fired or resigned, including Nuriel, Arel Segal, Miri Hanoch and Yaron Ben Brink.

"I couldn't work properly in an atmosphere of Pravda, fear, shouting and humiliation," says a journalist who left. "He was the kind of editor who tries to make you feel small and to humiliate you at every opportunity. That doesn't really stimulate creativity." Another journalist put it this way: "Hefetz prefers not to cope with problems, but to fire them."

Hefetz's outbursts of rage became a constant source of anxiety on the paper. Hefetz himself said often that he was aware of his outbursts and was trying to control them, but was not always successful. There wasn't a journalist who didn't suffer from the phenomenon. "I saw good people leaving his office pale and beaten," says a former editor on the paper. One journalist who endured the ritual of humiliation went up to Hefetz's children on a social occasion and told them, "Your father is a bad man." He was fired immediately.

Staffers who asked for a raise were rejected in a particularly aggressive and hostile way. Most of the journalists in the chain have very low wages. The low basic wage is supplemented by travel and other expenses, and extra pay for "special projects." Hefetz maintained total control of the wage increments, which in some cases could double a journalist's salary. The increments proved to be a highly effective way to control the employees. And in a period of severe economic slowdown, very few people dared to get into a confrontation with a powerful editor who didn't accept criticism and could send you packing in an instant.

"By exercising monthly control over a large part of the journalists' salaries, he achieved total control over them," says an editor who worked for the chain. (At the same time, staff members who encountered personal difficulties found Hefetz attentive to their plight. He helped a single mother get a reduction on municipal taxes and he was very supportive of a journalist whose husband fell ill.)

The paper's editors were not spared humiliation. Those he appointed, including Sharon Segal, who became editor of Iton Tel Aviv, sometimes found themselves in situations where Hefetz would scold them loudly, for all to hear. Then they were told to leave his office and go back to work. Once, at a meeting with editors, Hefetz told the sponsor of an event the paper was promoting not to heed the editors. It makes no difference what they say, I'm the one who has the final word, Hefetz declared in the presence of the astounded group.

The night the paper was put to bed was a constant source of tension with the editors. On that night, all the editors met at the headquarters of Yedioth Ahronoth to go over the pages before they were sent to the printer. Hefetz would peruse the paper and make last-minute changes in headlines or photo captions. "It's not easy to go through that kind of hazing every week," says a former editor. "Even in the army, no one shouted at me that I was a useless good-for-nothing, and where did I get such a stupid idea. Instead of going home with a feeling of relief after the week's work, I was all tensed up. It was absolutely horrific, what we went through every week."

Nor was this ordeal the end of the affair, says the editor. "The next day he would call the journalists who worked under me to praise them for a good piece, scold them for some screw-up and ask them to do articles for the next edition - but without my knowledge. When I asked him where I fit into the picture, he would say: Who are you, anyway - if you talk a lot, you're out of here."

That editor was not the only one who was threatened with dismissal. Hefetz made a habit of issuing such threats, and on occasion he also followed through on them. Both as editor of Iton Tel Aviv and then as editor-in-chief of the entire chain, Hefetz had no problem firing people. Gideon Spiro, who wrote a political column for Iton Yerushalayim (the chain's Jerusalem weekly) was let go after he wrote a critical piece about a particularly sensitive subject: the behavior of the Yedioth journalists during the printers' strike. "There is something fundamentally screwed up with the reporters from Yedioth and from the chain of local papers who, to our shame, mobilized to break the strikers," Spiro wrote in an article he published in Ha'aretz.

When the strike ended, the editor of Iton Yerushalayim, Omer Zohar, informed Spiro, on behalf of Nir Hefetz, that he would no longer be writing for the paper. Spiro asked for the support of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). A lawyer for ACRI, Dan Yakir, sent Hefetz a letter in which he requested that "publication of Spiro's column be resumed immediately." The scrapping of the column, he added, "threatens to cut off the branch on which freedom of the press rests."

Spiro did not get his job back. In a letter of farewell to his readers, he stated that his column had "survived all the obstacles and hurdles, but not, unfortunately, my support for the workers who were laid off." Hefetz refused to print the letter.

I am a Machiavellian

Hefetz liked to tell journalists that there was method in his management. I am a Machiavellian, he would tell them, which they took to mean that Hefetz believed all means were kosher to ensure stability and achieve the ruler's goals. One of Hefetz's goals was to cut costs. In the chain he is considered a good administrator, who by means of dismissals and other cost-reducing efforts has saved money. People in management, in contrast to journalists, sing his praises. Tami Mozes, who worked with him as the manager of Iton Tel Aviv, says that Hefetz's methods get results. Mudi Friedman, director-general of Noga Communications and a former director-general of Yedioth Ahronoth, says Hefetz is "an intelligent and energetic guy who did good things." A senior administrator in the Yedioth Communications chain describes Hefetz as "focused and a hard worker who is not afraid of changes. He streamlined things and replaced expensive people with inexpensive ones. I am no admirer of his management style - he cuts too sharply and too fast - but he is successful in getting results."

Hefetz is a very centralist editor. The editors of the weeklies call him for authorization of front-page headlines and subjects for feature articles. His control of the chain is absolute and very tight. He surrounds himself with young editors and reporters who obey him and don't dare put up an argument.

Iton Tel Aviv is considered the chain's flagship paper. Hefetz promised the staff that he would turn it into an important paper, but it didn't happen. "He turned Iton Tel Aviv into a version of Ha'olam Hazeh" - referring to the legendary muckraking magazine - "but without all the good things that were in Ha'olam Hazeh. Iton Tel Aviv became a cheap, lowbrow paper," says a senior figure at Yedioth Ahronoth.

In November 1999, Geula Amir, the mother of Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, was interviewed in the paper. Her remarks got a front-page quotation. "Yigal wasn't the one who murdered Rabin, the world will one day know that Yigal is very far from being the assassin that was pictured in the media," she stated.

The reporter who interviewed Amir, Gadi Blum, was very nice to her. Did anyone come to your help when you were under pressure? he asked. And what is it that hurts you in the way you have been treated by the media?

Female journalists did not care for Hefetz's approach to rapists and men who have murdered their wives. In December 1999, Iton Tel Aviv ran a sympathetic profile about the convicted serial rapist Benny Sela. The article described his hard life ("the beatings he suffered at home, the father who committed suicide in the middle of the street"). A psychiatric opinion was cited that played up his mental anguish, and an ex-girlfriend related that he had loved her very much. "I feel for the rape victims and I also feel for Benny Sela, who experienced hard times in his life and didn't get help," she said. Amnon Cohen, who murdered his wife and his two children, was also the subject of an amazingly sympathetic article. "We all wondered why we had to be part of that stuff," says a female journalist who worked for Iton Tel Aviv.

Catchy messages, blunt sex

Hefetz's journalistic conception includes short, catchy messages, staccato sub-headlines and a lot of crude sex. That approach has not always been popular with the editorial staff. One of the first headlines he conceived on the paper was for an interview that Arel Segal did with actor Sami Houri. Hefetz liked the piece. He decided the headline would be, "Ayelet Zorer had me by the balls - what a hard case," based on something Houri had said in the interview.

"There was a small argument," says a journalist. "Most of us thought it was a cheap headline. Hefetz insisted. Someone had the temerity to tall him it was a freha [vulgar, tarty] headline, and she didn't last long on the paper after that."

From the time he took over the paper, Hefetz made it clear to anyone who wanted to listen that he held right-wing views and that it was high time the right was given suitable representation in the media. Under his leadership, Iton Tel Aviv and the entire chain assumed a right-wing cast. The journalists understood that articles on left-wingers or Arabs that were sympathetic to their subjects were no longer wanted. Ehud Barak was systematically attacked in Iton Tel Aviv. Three months after the 1999 elections, which Barak won, the paper came out with a cover story that bore the headline, "The country is going crazy - murders in the family, rapes, hooliganism on the roads, juvenile delinquency, abuse of minors, an unprecedented wave of violence is inundating Israel: Why is it happening to us here and now?" In December 1999, the paper ran a cover story with an illustration of Barak and the headline, "The whole truth about Barak's limp performance."

With the end of the Barak government looming on the horizon, the paper shifted gears. In November 2000 Iton Tel Aviv ran an interview with former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat, a former Likud figure who had supported Yitzhak Rabin. "Arik Sharon has not been the Sharon of Lebanon for a long time. This is a soft, realistic Arik, and we need him in the government," Lahat said, and was quoted on the cover. On January 19, 2001, three weeks before the elections for prime minister, the paper published a cover story with a big headline: "War of routine." The text, alongside photographs of the victims of Palestinian terrorist attacks, stated that an Israeli citizen was being murdered by Palestinians every 60 hours, that there were 45 dead and 73 children had been orphaned. This is not the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the paper declared, this is war.

If, until the elections, it seemed as though the paper was fulfilling its traditional role of opposing the ruling party no matter who was in power, and of criticizing the government, after the elections the true tendency became apparent. The intifada didn't end, the terrorism went on unabated, the number of victims only increased - but the Yedioth Communications papers changed direction.

On July 20, 2001, only a month after the terrorist attack at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv, in which 21 people were killed, all the chain's papers came out with a special edition under the general headline of "Only good things." The papers carried only positive stories.

Hefetz told the editors that he intended to create a new trend in the press. People are tired of corruption, he said; they want color, life. But strict censorship was imposed on the positive news, too. A story about a woman confined to a wheelchair who did ballet dancing was okayed. But a journalist who suggested an interview with Israelis who were bringing food to residents of the territories who were under siege was told that this did not meet the criteria, because it was too political.

Plugged in

In the past few days, since Hefetz's name cropped up as a candidate for IBA chairman, a lot of people have been trying to figure out how he rose so far and so fast. He is the champion of forging connections, says a person who worked with him, he is a politician who knows how to plug in to the right people. The staff at the IBA is in for a hard time, says a woman who worked with Hefetz. We are relieved, says a journalist in Yedioth Communications, but what about the employees at the IBA?

"Maybe Hefetz's success in firing people is what the Prime Minister's Bureau expects from him at the IBA," says Arel Segal. It's not by chance that Ariel Sharon and Arnon Mozes are interested in Hefetz's appointment as director-general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. If the appointment is approved by the Revivi Committee (the public body, headed by Judge and charged with investigating public sector appointments) the staff at IBA headquarters and everyone within earshot should invest in a pair of earplugs.n