How Sheldon Adelson Is Changing the Face of Israeli Media

Under the right-wing American casino magnate, Makor Rishon is likely to start toeing the Bibi line along with Israel Hayom.

Sheldon Adelson listens at a convention of  the Republican Jewish Coalition in March 2014,  in Las Vegas.
AP

The deal to sell Israel’s once-leading Maariv newspaper to media owner Eli Azur for a mere 4 million shekels, authorized Sunday by the Tel Aviv District Court, signaled the fall of one right-wing newspaper group owned by Diaspora Jews and the rise of another, potentially much more powerful one, fueled by the billions of Republican mega-donor, Netanyahu backer and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

In the past three weeks, the courts held a fire sale of the media holdings of British-born Shlomo Ben-Zvi (Goldblum) and his father-in-law, British millionaire and supporter of far-right causes, Conrad Morris. The most surprising result was the sale of religious newspaper Makor Rishon for 14 million shekels to Adelson, who threw in another 3 million shekels for Maariv’s nearly defunct website, nrg.co.il.

The surprise is not of course that Adelson — one of the richest men in the world, with a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at over $38 billion — could afford Makor Rishon (“Primary Source”) — it’s pocket change for a man who spent nearly $100 million backing Republican candidates in the most recent U.S. presidential elections. Nobody, however, thought Adelson, who annually dedicates a budget believed to be around 50 million shekels to Israel Hayom, the free tabloid daily he founded seven years ago, at all wanted another Israeli newspaper.

Besides the fact that both can be described as right-wing, the two newspapers now owned by Adelson have nothing in common. Israel Hayom is like no other free newspaper in the world. While its reports are brief and rather superficial, it has a full team of reporters, commentators and columnists, some very well-paid by Israeli standards. And while hundreds of thousands of copies are distributed throughout the country without charge, it does not rely on advertising (though it carries some) for its main income.

It seems it was founded and continues to be funded by Adelson for one purpose only: to support Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies and ensure the Likud leader remains prime minister. Netanyahu’s rivals, from left, right and within Likud are ridiculed by the newspaper, while any criticism of the prime minister and especially his wife, is dismissed as “persecution.”

Media critic Aviv Horowitz last week counted all the reports Israel Hayom dedicated to Sara Netanyahu in the five years since her husband returned to the prime minister’s office in April 2004 — which numbered 208. Over 80 percent of the reports were positive, and the rest were neutral except for one, which was a brief list of past allegations against her that appeared alongside three positive pieces.

The reason for Adelson’s newspaper’s existence, it appears, is simply that Israeli law does not allow large campaign donations.

Some politicians and journalists have called on the state comptroller to investigate what they claim is a blatant abuse of the political donation laws, but it doesn’t seem as though this loophole is about to close anytime in the near future. Meanwhile, a law that would forbid national distribution of free newspapers is about to be put forward in the next Knesset, with the potential support of just about every party besides Likud. But the prime minister will fight it tooth and nail, and Adelson is still three steps ahead.

Makor Rishon, on the other hand, has never hitched itself to a particular politician. It was founded nearly 17 years ago by extreme right-wing Rabbi Shmuel Tal, and despite never enjoying financial success, was sustained thanks to wealthy settlers and their supporters; for the last decade, Ben-Zvi, who lives in the town of Efrat, part of the Gush Etzion bloc of West Bank settlements. Most recently, it has been sympathetic toward Habayit Hayehudi and its leader Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (though not uncritical of him at times), who is seen as a potential rival to Netanyahu and last week attacked Israel Hayom calling it “Pravda,” the official newspaper of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party.

Adelson’s surprising entry into the bidding for the newspaper that Ben-Zvi has finally been forced to relinquish, is more than anything proof that despite the widespread support for legislation against his newspaper, Adelson is doubling down in his support of Netanyahu, using every opportunity to extend his influence over the electorate — much in the way he has established his predominance among Republican heavyweights in the U.S., becoming the man that most of the main contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination are courting.

The weekly Makor Rishon’s existence (for a period, it also had a slim daily edition) has been chaotic, including a brief closure, periodic hiring and firing drives and openings and closings of supplements. But ultimately, it succeeded in building a rapport with a dedicated community of mainly religious readers, who appreciate the difference between it and the tabloid fare of most of Israel’s mainstream media.

No one knows what Adelson plans for Makor Rishon — a new editor has yet to be announced — but there seems little reason to believe that any publication of his will not toe the Bibi line. With Israel Hayom and Makor Rishon in Adelson’s hands, the only remaining big independent right-wing publication is Be’Sheva, a rigidly ideological free weekly representing the furthest reaches of the settler and national-ultra-Orthodoxy (Haredi-Leumi) camps. The wider modern-Orthodox (dati-leumi) community may find the one newspaper that specifically catered to their needs subsumed to the prime minister’s personal agenda.

Bloomberg