Israeli Media Takes Off the Gloves in Election Battle

Yedioth Ahronoth's 'Diskin Document' is one of the most overt attempts by the Israeli press to influence the upcoming election.

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Spin doctors have a golden rule that nearly every news story, scandal, scoop and exclusive investigation has a life-span of just 72 hours. After three days and nights, no matter how juicy the story is, the media circus caravan loses interest and trundles on to the next sensation. And then of course there are the stories that outlive the 72-hours news cycle because they are simply too powerful to expire, or the media's hidden powers that be have decided they must remain in the public eye, no matter what.

The masters of Israel's most powerful news empire, Yedioth Ahronoth, have made that call on what they have dubbed the "Diskin Document," an interview carried out by filmmaker Dror Moreh with the former Shin Bet chief, in which he delivers his judgment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The paper started touting the interview on Thursday morning, ran it in its entirety on Friday and today (Sunday) is continuing to lead the paper with it under the headline "The Diskin Storm."

The interview had it all – graphic descriptions of how Netanyahu, Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman preferred to hold crucial meetings on Iran at the Mossad's "villa" north of Tel Aviv, where they smoked Cuban cigars, drank alcohol (Barak specifically) and waited for uniformed chefs to prepare a sumptuous meal while the defense chiefs were summoned to deliver their briefings. In this setting, Diskin claims, Netanyahu and Barak made decisions based on their narrow personal and political interests, rather than on national security. They tried to drag Israel into a strike against Iran, in defiance of the opinions of former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, ex-Mossad Chief Meir Dagan and Diskin himself, without receiving the necessary authorization from the entire cabinet.

Diskin's account is breathtaking and important but it doesn't reveal much (besides the details on the cigars and Barak's tippling) that hasn't already been covered by Uvda, Channel 2's investigative journalism show that aired two months ago.

What is new here is that this is one of the most overt attempts by main powers in the Israeli press to influence the upcoming election. Yedioth has been hostile to Netanyahu since his first term of government in the 1990s, when they published a series of damaging revelations, including a devastating feature on Sara Netanyahu that detailed her tantrums and love for freebies.

But the timing and virulence of Yedioth's anti-Netanyahu tone has grown exponentially in recent months – especially in the run-up to the election. In his column on Friday (in Hebrew), media columnist Aviv Horowitz counted 21 main headlines that dealt with political, diplomatic or financial affairs in 28 editions of Yedioth (published before the Diskin Document). Twelve of these were hostile to Netanyahu. In three cases, prominent figures were interviewed with the express intention of attacking the prime minister – former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, ex-National Security Adviser Uzi Arad and an unnamed "senior national figure" widely believed to be President Shimon Peres.

There are various conspiracy theories on why Yedioth's principal shareholder, Arnon "Noni" Mozes, feels such antipathy toward Netanyahu. After all, his paper and website (Ynet) are not particularly left-wing and other senior Likud figures (Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, for example) normally receive preferential treatment in Yedioth. But over the last five years, Mozes has had a concrete reason to resent Netanyahu: the appearance of a new mass-market tabloid on the scene.

Israel Hayom, the free-sheet owned and bankrolled by casino mogul and second-richest Jew in the world, Sheldon Adelson, has infinite resources, which allows it to be distributed for free and has allowed it to overtake Yedioth as the most widely read newspaper in Israel. It has also never been shy about its blanket support of Netanyahu and derision toward his political rivals, both left and right, in Israel and abroad. Israel Hayom also believes that the Diskin interview is an important story and dedicates a spread to it in today's edition titled "Noni's Mask has been Torn." It attacks Diskin for his personal motives and Mozes for pursuing a relentless and dirty campaign against the prime minister.

Yedioth rarely mentions its competitor by name, but Israel Hayom routinely excoriates Mozes and his newspaper, boasting of how it has broken his stranglehold on Israeli politics.

While there is no clear challenger to Netanyahu from the center-left, on the media battlefield, the proxies are clear: Adelson and Mozes are pitting their editors, correspondents, columnists and photographers against each other. (Notice how Netanyahu never smiles on Yedioth's pages and Tzipi Livni always looks mean in Israel Hayom.) The two moguls are not alone. The media group of Shlomo Ben-Zvi, which now owns both the right-wing religious paper Makor Rishon and the veteran Ma'ariv, is less obvious with its preferences but is by far more positive in its coverage of Habayit Hayehudi Naftali Bennett. British businessman Conrad Morris, Ben-Zvi's father-in-law, financed the Ma'ariv purchase and donated to Bennett's primaries campaign. (Full disclosure: Haaretz, the other main daily newspaper in the media mix has a clear position on political, social and financial issues but has been just as critical of the center-left parties as it is of the right and has not hitched its cart to any leader.)

A leading correspondent in one of these papers said to me over the weekend, "It is so sickening how we have lost any pretense of fairness. I try to work from home as much as possible, without going in to the office, I can't bear it."

He is not alone, but journalists continue to work in the service of political campaigns as they have little choice but to make a living. It remains to be seen if this also sickens the Israeli public.

Yuval Diskin, February 28, 2012.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Sheldon Adelson, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Tess Scheflan

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