Israel Election's Biggest Battle Being Fought by Newspaper Tycoons

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American tycoon Sheldon Adelson, owner of Israel Hayom. There will never be peace between him and Yedioth's Arnon Mozes.Credit: AP

In past election campaigns, many Israeli citizens complained – often with good reason – that they were only background scenery for the politicians’ games of thrones, power and ego. Dealing with their hardships and troubles, the people claimed, was not a top priority for the leaders and for those who wished to lead.

What is different about this election campaign is that this time, even the political players have become, in a way that does not work in their favor, extras in yet another dispute that might seem to be a peripheral issue but is actually a major one: the fight between the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth group and the publisher of the freebie daily Israel Hayom.

The status that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted to Facebook on Monday, expressing anger toward Arnon Mozes, his newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and his website Ynet, was a clever campaign move. He dictated an agenda, pushed his opponent into a corner, and prompted a response — not one of the best, we must admit — from a senior journalist at Yedioth, who suggested that the prime minister be committed to a psychiatric hospital.

But more important, Netanyahu turned what had been written and said here fairly recently as a kind of commentary or assessment — that these elections had been born of the approval, in a preliminary reading, of the so-called Israel Hayom bill in the Knesset on November 12 — into writing on the wall that screamed out. Indeed, it is true: This election campaign is actually the “SheldoNoni War.”

Until proven otherwise, the only conclusion we can draw is that Netanyahu dragged the country into unnecessary elections to save the newspaper belonging to Adelson, the casino tycoon from Las Vegas, from the danger of legislation that would stop it from being given out for free.

The politicians know how to get along quite well with one another. Every single man and woman among them slits one another’s throats during the campaign, and the day after the elections they all sit down quietly together in a hotel suite, light up cigars, pour glasses of wine, and cut a deal for the next four years.

But there will never be peace between Adelson and Mozes, nor will there ever be unity between them. When Netanyahu sends his Knesset members to the media to lash out against Yedioth Ahronoth and to defend, with their own bodies, the newspaper that is his private mouthpiece and his family’s propaganda organ – he is stating openly, for all the world to know, that it was for this that he disbanded his government last December, when he dismissed Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni with no reasonable cause.

When he accuses Mozes and Co. of trying to topple him from power in order to close Israel Hayom, a disturbing question arises on its own: Who is the boss here, and who is the subordinate? Who is running things, and who is being run? Who is giving the orders and who is carrying them out?

It is no accident that the two major, recent election events on the ground were the demonstration by the Likud Youth Movement in front of Yedioth Ahronoth’s building, and the press conference held by MK Eitan Cabel in front of Israel Hayom. That was a mistake by the Zionist Union. Israel's hard-pressed commoners have become accustomed to receiving a free newspaper each day, and they will not thank anyone who snatches away their daily gift.

Incidentally, officials of Likud’s campaign headquarters say that the idea of setting the young Likudniks on the building of the “evil empire” on Mozes Street was born in the prime minister's official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem by one of the two young people living there. Power, money, family and newspaper(s) have never been so intertwined, interwoven and entangled in one another.

The prime minister has succeeded in twisting and forcing the political map to conform to his personal agenda. He has harnessed Likud’s elected officials to be part of his own and his wife’s tangled web of hatred, rivalries, settling of scores and vendettas. Before it was bottles; now it is newspapers. Like the Cossack crying out that he was robbed, he cries out bitterly against Mozes even as he dictates his content to the more popular Israel Hayom, which praises and exalts Netanyahu, and lashes out indiscriminately against all his rivals, real and imaginary. Above all, he continues to push forward with his plans for taking over other media centers in his next term, if he should remain in his post.

For Netanyahu, Israel Hayom is just the pilot — and, we must say, a good one.

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