Analysis |

Between Corruption Cases and an Attempted Coup: What Drives Netanyahu

Only one thing is stopping Israel’s prime minister from realizing his authoritarian vision: Control of the media

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the presentation of his economic plan in Ramat Gan, February 16, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the presentation of his economic plan in Ramat Gan, February 16, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

A direct line connects Yuli Edelstein’s barricading himself in the Knesset speaker’s office and the painless death of Israel’s parliament with the cases of bribery and breach of trust for which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been charged. The seeds of the coup were already planted there, in cases 2000 and 4000, and those who don’t recognize that are either blind or fools.

Netanyahu has throughout his reign, but particularly since his upset election victory in 2015, invested a tremendous amount of energy toward attempting to subdue Israel’s free press and make it subservient to his needs, with the help of toxic statements he issues against his rivals.

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He tried to forge a deal with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes to get the hostile media ship to change direction. He either directly or via his minions ramped up pressure on a daily basis against the man at the helm of Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch. Elovitch in turn trampled on the basic rights of journalists at Bezeq's Walla news site, by demanding that they serve as spokespeople for the government.

Netanyahu tried to shut Channel 10 just for it having published in more daring times the list of damaging investigations against him. He dismantled a government by his own admission over legislation that sought to weaken the sympathetic free newspaper Israel Hayom. He came close to dismantling the government that followed so as to prevent the establishment of a public broadcast corporation for fear that the new media organization would not fulfill the role for which it was intended: being an organ of his propaganda machine.

He tried to tempt a list of billionaires around the world to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in setting up media initiatives, whose aim was to give him control over published content, and to prevent investigations and articles from being published that were liable to hurt his ability to stay in power and to suppress any criticism of him, his family or his aides.

He invested hours in conversations and meetings with Larry Ellison, James Packer, Arnon Milchan, Rupert Murdoch and the heads of German media corporation Axel Springer, in the hopes they would do what Sheldon Adelson had done: set up Polish- or Hungarian-style trumpets to relay his message to the rhythm of a hammering cadence, until public consciousness would lose any semblance of independence and whatever was left of any critical tools would collapse.

In order to control the process, he had his trusted lawyers, the late Yaakov Weinroth and Yaakov Neeman, on the case dealing with these magnates.

During his investigations, Netanyahu complained about the involvement of mysterious superpowers preventing him from handling what he described as an issue more threatening than the Iranian nuclear project or the gaps between the poor and the wealthy. “The most serious problem we have is media concentrated to a greater extent than anywhere else in the Western world" he said. "In the eastern world … you go to Eastern Europe and then to the south, you see this thing … we take pride in being a democracy but we have no diversity in the market of opinions, no representation. These markets are blocked.”

“I can’t believe you initiated these investigations,” the prime minister told police investigators, an edge of suspicion in his voice. “Someone initiated and operated this in order to lock in a situation where the media market won’t be opened here.”

Here’s the disguise in all its glory: The one who cries out against media centralization did everything he could to make it happen. The last thing Netanyahu aspired to was to open up the market to a large number of voices. To anyone who follows his relations with the media, among them those who have treated him as a superhero, it is clear that his goal was to ensure only one voice would be heard, and it's one that’s controlled by him.

He didn’t want to diversify the media but to lock it up behind bars and post guards at the entrance to make sure that not a shred of criticism or doubt would leak inside.

The man who takes pride in the democratic values he learned from Jabotinsky and the American founding fathers believed that this takeover plan was essential to fortifying his control over the masses and his survival in power. When the law enforcement system understood, if not a bit late, that his dangerous obsession was making him lose his ingrained sense of caution and sell public interests to powerful and wealthy people, he marked them as the next targets for smears and liquidation. When he feared the High Court may stand in his way he made plans to get rid of it as well.

If Netanyahu’s plan had been implemented then the media would be dealing solely with the coronavirus scare right now, and Edelstein’s shameful acts would possibly get a mention in a laconic report on the obituary page or at the end of the evening news. In essence, even that would not necessarily have happened. Had Netanyahu seized control over the media, then he would never have faced any investigation at all, he wouldn’t have been indicted nor would he have faced any effective opposition.

The Knesset speaker would not have had to sully his name forever with behavior befitting the head of a puppet parliament in an authoritarian regime. The press is still free though weaker and remains Netanyahu’s mythical enemy.

Against his attempts to destroy what is left of checks and balances, under the cover of the coronavirus panic, the press is still holding onto the last fortifications that are keeping it from sliding into the abyss. The prime minister, a man with vision, was the first to recognize this threat.

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