How Bibi Strove to Become Israel's King of Ratings

Netanyahu cultivated a relationship with media owners, attempted to attempt his own people as executives ■ Yair and Sara played an active role in Netanyahu's media dealings

Bibi, King of Ratings.
Eran Wolkowski

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his efforts to control the media even further than previously thought, according to testimony by a former aide turned state's evidence, and correspondence published over the past week.

Breaking with the standard practice of dealing directly with members of the press who might write about him, the premier generally insisted on speaking with media outlet owners instead. He also pushed to have close associate Ari Harrow appointed chairman of Channel 10, and applied pressure on other media executives in various ways.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 48Haaretz

Journalists, including those at Haaretz and TheMarker, have been pointing to Netanyahu’s obsession with Israel’s media for years. His relationships with owners of Israeli media outlets are at the center of the criminal investigations he is currently facing.

Go straight to the owner

“Netanyahu’s view was that you had to talk with the owners,” former Netanyahu media adviser Nir Hefetz, who has since turned state’s evidence, and has been the focus of several attacks by Netanyahu allies, told police investigators. Sometimes, he would make do with the editor-in-chief.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu being interviewed to the American TV network ABC, December 3, 2016
Haim Zach

Usually, a media adviser’s job is to talk with reporters and columnists and provide them with information, background and comments. But that wasn’t the case when Hefetz worked for the prime minister.

Hefetz detailed whom he spoke with at each media outlet, in what seems to be only a fraction of the pressure he exerted on media outlets on behalf of Netanyahu. At the daily Maariv, Netanyahu “asked me to speak only with the owner, Eli Azur. Period.” At Channel 2, now Channel 12, “he asked me to speak only with the CEO, Avi Weiss,” or sometimes with the editor-in-chief, Gut Suderi.

At Keshet and Reshet, the two companies that jointly ran Channel 2 at the time, it was their respective CEOs, Avi Nir and Avi Zvi. At the daily Israel Hayom, known for its pro-Netanyahu stance, “it was generally Amos Regev,” then the editor-in-chief, “but there was also a reporter he especially trusted, Mati Tuchfeld, and sometimes it was enough for Bibi that I talked to him.”

The one exception was Channel 10, which is now Channel 13. Netanyahu considered its CEO, Yossi Warshavsky, a persona non grata and never asked Hefetz to talk to him, the state witness said.

Nir Hefetz talks to reporter outside the Tel Aviv district court, November 11, 2019
Motti Milrod

Friends in high places

New evidence also demonstrates that Netanyahu pushed to have close associates appointed to positions of power at various media outlets.

Correspondence published by Raviv Drucker on Channel 13 last week shows that from 2015 to 2016, Hefetz and the Communications Ministry’s then-director general, Shlomo Filber – who has also since turned state’s evidence – tried to appoint their own people to the new public broadcasting corporation that was then being created. They also tried to assist Channel 20, a television station sympathetic to the right and Netanyahu.

In 2015, a few months after Channel 10 was bought by RGE Group, the channel’s news corporation needed a new board of directors and a new chairman. In 2017, Chaim Levinson reported in Haaretz that Netanyahu had tried to appoint his chief of staff, Ari Harow – who has also turned state’s evidence – as the news corporation’s chairman.

In the end, the job went to Rami Sadan, a former media advisor to the Netanyahu family. But Sadan’s 2016 appointment sparked a public outcry, both because of his closeness to Netanyahu and statements he made at the channel's board meetings, which were perceived as racist. He was ultimately forced to resign after TheMarker reported on inaccuracies in his resume.

2000breach

How Sara fired the strategist

One of the issues investigators focused on in the Yedioth Ahronoth case, also known as Case 2000, involves an article published on Ynet early in the 2015 election campaign that slammed one of Netanyahu’s then rival, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. 

Case 2000 investigates the alleged attempts to impact the way Netanyahu was portrayed by Israel’s largest news website and daily paper, Ynet and Yedioth Ahronoth, through secret talks with its owner Arnon Mozes, in exchange for shackling free rival paper Israel Hayom. Mozes himself presented the Bennett piece to Netanyahu as a trust-building measure. 

Hefetz stated to investigators that he was not appraised of the details of Netanyahu’s relationship with Mozes, but that it was Netanyahu’s wife Sara and son Yair who were pushing the campaign staff to attack Bennett.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, en route to Uganda on July 4, 2016
URIEL SINAI / NYT

“One of the main things occupying us, the professional staff, on a daily basis, was halting the massive, endless pressure from Yair and Sara to attack Bennett,” he stated. “We worked on how to stop this with the American advisors [helping Netanyahu’s campaign]. We faced pressure, phone calls, to us and to Bibi - a downpour. You can’t imagine it.”

Hefetz’s testimony indicates that Sara Netanyahu had considerable influence over the campaign. “Two weeks before the election, Sara fired the campaign’s main strategist, Aharon Shabib," he said. "He was simply kicked out because he refused to attack Bennett. He shared one of Bennett’s Facebook posts on Netanyahu’s Facebook page - and that was it. She fired him on the phone with screams and curses.”

All told, the testimonies shed some more light on the extent to which the man who has been prime minister for the past decade, and his family, were responsible for shaping the face of the country’s media industry.