Israel’s biggest illegal streaming site has come out in support of Benjamin Netanyahu, a boon to the embattled prime minister as tens if not hundreds of thousands of Israelis visit the Sdarot website.
The site offers countless hours of translated content, including TV shows and movies, sometimes subtitled and uploaded online only hours after they’re broadcast. Sdarot frequently changes its web address to evade detection as the authorities strive to take it down due to wide-scale copyright infringement.
Many Israelis were surprised this week to learn that the website is not just a bastion of pirate politics but also a pro-Netanyahu stronghold. A massive “Netanyahu, the people are with you” banner was placed at the top of the site, with a click leading readers to a page dedicated to the prime minister, urging them “to attend the demonstrations in support of Netanyahu.”
Recent weeks have seen a surge in anti-Netanyahu protests, like the weekly demonstrations outside the prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, as well as outside his private home in the tony beachfront community of Caesarea and at intersections and bridges across Israel.
The protests, the site claimed, echoing a Netanyahu talking point, have been led by “radicals, leftists and anarchists … and anyone who objects to the site voicing political opinions can go search for another website to watch (or buy a subscription).”
In an interview over encrypted chat, the person behind the site told Haaretz why he is throwing his weight behind Netanyahu. He goes by the pseudonym Eli Cohen, claims to be living abroad and even refuses to admit he’s an Israeli citizen for fear of prosecution.
Your website is illegal and provides an illegal service. One could claim it’s not surprising that someone like you supports a prime minister facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
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“Bibi isn’t a thief. Bibi never asked for the support of my website. There is no funding from anyone – unlike the leftists’ protests. In my opinion, the cases against Netanyahu are fixed.
Do you feel that an illegal streaming service is political?
“A streaming site can choose to be political or have a political bent. Recently I decided to voice my political opinions because I feel there’s a real need. The website offers its services to everyone irrespective of race, religion or gender – and of course also regardless of political opinions or differences.
“But if there are people who voted Labor and they don’t want to use a website because of the political positions I express, then that’s their problem and they should look for an alternative.”
Will your political positions influence the content you stream?
“Good question. My political affiliation is right-wing. I don’t reject Benny Gantz or any other alternative that may arise, but it seems to me that Bibi is the people’s choice and he wins by a massive majority.”
‘Making up allegations’ against Netanyahu
Much like Donald Trump, Netanyahu did not win the popular vote; rather, his Likud party won more Knesset seats than any other party and, after three consecutive elections that ended in a deadlock, Netanyahu formed a coalition with other parties to achieve a ruling majority in the Knesset.
But do you think, for example, that you’ll upload a television series that’s critical of Netanyahu?
“So far we haven’t done any blanket bans on uploading any content of any type. As long as it’s subtitled or dubbed [in Hebrew], we’ve posted it. If there’s a show that’s critical of Netanyahu, I may consider whether to upload it or not when the time comes. But I don’t reject flat out the possibility that my political positions will influence what’s uploaded to the site.”
Do you think Bibi really needs your help? Do you think he’s in trouble?
“I think the left feels that Bibi has been in power so long they have to find other ways to end his term and are making up allegations. I feel there’s an injustice happening against Israelis – anarchy is threatening our national security – and because of that I felt the need to speak up. But I know I’ll pay a price for it.”
What do you mean? Do you think they’re out to get you just as they’re out to get Netanyahu?
“There certainly are some similarities between our cases. The goal of my website is to provide free streaming to all walks of life. There are parts of Israeli society that live in poverty, that don’t have the financial ability to pay Hot for cable or Yes for satellite.
“I really want to pay taxes and regulate the activity of my website. But there are these organizations with financial interests that want to keep that status quo, and they do everything possible to preserve their high prices.”
Cohen is referring to Zira, a digital rights group set up by Israel’s leading broadcasters, production companies and film distributors to fight sites like Sdarot, which simply means “Series” in the plural form in Hebrew. According to Cohen, Zira “hounds streaming websites and prevents us from regulating our activity, with one goal – theft.”
His battle with the rights group has taken a dark turn: After an injunction against the site, forcing internet service providers to block access to it, Sdarot adopted as its logo the face of the lawyer representing Zira.
And Sdarot’s Twitter account is now trolling lawyers battling it in lawsuits; Sdarot sometimes tweets sexist and other offensive comments about the attorneys. Zira told Haaretz that “Sdarot facilitates access to content that infringes on copyrights, disregarding court orders in a flagrant, illegal and criminal manner.”
Bibi and high prices
They say Sdarot’s claims that it’s somehow democratizing content by providing a platform for artists to show their work are nonsense, because much of the funding for original Israeli television and film productions comes from the broadcasters’ revenues.
“During a time when the Israeli world of culture struggles to survive, a website like Sdarot is nothing less than a death blow to original Israeli culture, and the authorities must put an end to this criminal activity.”
For their part, the Israeli police said they investigate each case brought to their attention.
So you feel like you’re some Robin Hood who robs from the rich corporations and gives to the poor consumers? Based on some calculations, your site makes a hundred dollars a day.
“A hundred dollars a day? I wish! The site is very expensive to operate and I mostly try to give back to the community. For example, the ads on the site are given to nonprofits, and people with disabilities are given a free subscription.
“We also provide a platform for television creators to share their content. We have crazy traffic – but because of all the different bans and blocking, it's hard to know the exact numbers. But I really think we’re the most popular website in Israel after Google. Our app alone has over 100,000 users.”
But the fact that there are corporations making a lot of money means that there are also artists and creators who need to get their share of it to make a living. Your site also hosts local content. Why should local artists not get their share too?
“But Zira doesn’t represent artists and actors. They represent the old left-wing establishment and get millions in funding to keep prices high.”
So you’re like Netanyahu? Fighting the old elites? Don’t you think that maybe the prices in Israel are so high because of Netanyahu? In one of the cases against him, he allegedly tried to get better coverage from the Walla website, which is owned by Bezeq and Yes. The alleged deal would have seen Bezeq, Israel’s biggest telecom company, receive regulatory benefits in return for Netanyahu receiving better coverage on the website.
“It’s very possible that Bibi is the cause of the high prices in Israel. He’s in charge and the one calling the shots, so I don’t rule that out. But his right-wing worldview seems to be better than his rivals’.”
Aren’t you afraid you’ll end up in jail?
“No way, there won’t be jail. There will be nothing because there is nothing” – a famous Netanyahu phrase.
But actually that’s not true: In Netanyahu’s case there was something in the end – recordings and testimonies – and in your case even more so: There’s a website with literally hours and hours of illegal content.
“It’s not hours – it’s days full of content.”