Analysis

Netanyahu’s Hostile Takeover of Israeli Media Started at The Post

The 1989 takeover of Israel’s English-language daily by conservative Canadian tycoons enshrined the impotence of journalists

Shamir and Netanyahu at Beit Jabotinsky, Likud party HQ, in Tel Aviv,
Miki Kratsman

In the fall of 1989 I was the Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic correspondent. I was summoned one day to the offices of Yehuda Levy, who had recently been installed as president and publisher of the newspaper by its new owners, the Canadian Hollinger company, owned by arch conservative Conrad Black and his Jewish junior partner, David Radler. The urgent summons, which went over the heads of my editors, worried me. I was well aware of Levy’s complaints against what he described as the Post’s imbalanced - or sometimes “extreme leftist” - reporting. My apprehensions were immediately borne out: As I entered his room, Levy told me in a scolding tone that Benjamin Netanyahu, then deputy foreign minister, had complained that my report on a speech he’d given at Tel Aviv University was wrong. Netanyahu can complain all he wants, I replied, but I have a tape recording of his address. Why don’t you listen to it yourself, I suggested, but Levy declined. Instead, he stunned me by demanding that I contact Netanyahu’s spokesman nonetheless and even “consider” an apology. “When people complain,” he said, “you have to take it into account.”

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The incident was the last in a series of attempts by Levy to directly and blatantly intervene in the editorial management of the newspaper. It sparked what became known as the “mutiny” of Post journalists, the first and last organized effort by Israeli journalists to rise up against hostile owners and heavy-handed publishers. 30 of the Post’s top editors and reporters - led by then managing editor and future Haaretz editor David Landau, who I doubt is resting in peace when he looks down from above - wrote to Levy that given the circumstances, they cannot see themselves continuing to work for the newspaper. Levy, an IDF colonel in his past and in his personality, struck back decisively: He ordered the defiant journalists to vacate themselves and their belongings from the Jerusalem Post building within half an hour. He even hired security guards to make sure they took nothing else.

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Despite the humiliation, we felt buoyant. We were certain that we were brave freedom fighters striking a blow for liberty. In retrospect, we were simply clearing the way for Levy and his ultra-conservative dispatchers at Hollinger to seize control of the Post, which enjoyed considerable international prestige at the time, and to mold it to their right-wing hearts’ content. A plot that was hatched with an off-the-cuff remark in the bureau of then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir - and then decisively pushed forward by Netanyahu - was about to be carried out in reality.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem December 6, 2017.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Shamir had a relatively benign attitude towards critical Hebrew language newspapers such as Haaretz and now-defunct party-affiliated publications such as Davar and Al Hamishmar, but the Post, the only English language publication at the time, got on his nerves. He thought the newspaper was making Israeli hasbara efforts, already struggling with the outbreak of the first intifada, that much harder. When Radler - an arch-right Canadian Jew and upcoming media magnate who would later go to prison just like his more renowned partner Black - was accorded a short meeting with Shamir, he asked the prime minister’s adviser Arye Mekel how he might help. Mekel quipped that if the Post were up for sale, he could help by buying it. Two years later, when the cash-strapped Histadrut-affiliated Koor, along with minority stakeholder Bank Hapoalim, decided to sell the loss-making Post, Mekel remembered his Canadian guest. He dispatched Netanyahu, then in New York, to cajole Radler, another conservative tycoon who had fallen under Netanyahu’s spell when he was at the United Nations, to make a bid. Netanyahu was apparently so persuasive that Hollinger’s offer to pay $20.7 million dollars for Koor’s 51% holdings was exponentially higher than what the company had been willing to accept. The late Ari Rath, then publisher and editor, would later recount that when Koor’s directors opened Hollinger’s bid, they were sure it was a typo.

Radler’s first step was to appoint Levy as both publisher and “president”, a hitherto unknown title. Radler knew Levy from the time the former IDF officer had served as an emissary for the Jewish National Fund in Vancouver. Levy later found a living organizing trips to Israel for messianic Evangelicals, which is now a booming business, before Radler diverted him to the media stage. Despite Radler’s pro forma pledges to respect the journalists’ editorial independence, Levy, with his commanding voice, aggressive manner and imperial airs, didn’t waste a minute. Rath was nudged out almost immediately. Six months later, his co-editor Irwin Frenkel also left over tensions with Levy and the publisher’s insistence to dictate and even write the Post’s unsigned editorials. It was clear to a large number of the paper’s editors and reporters that that the situation was unsustainable. As we were carrying our cartons out of the Jerusalem Post building under the watchful eye of Levy’s goons, we were arrogantly confident that the last word had not yet been spoken.

Conrad Black, former chief executive officer of Hollinger Inc., stands for a photograph in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Wednesday, July 31, 2013.
Bloomberg

The rebels, who included most of the Post’s senior staff, received some support from the Hebrew press and much more from the international media, but Israeli public opinion took scant interest in the English-language drama. Some readers were outraged, but most quickly adapted to the skeleton version of the Post that was published in the months after our departure. The Histadrut trade union, possibly embarrassed that its affiliates Koor and Bank Hapoalim had sold the newspaper and sold out its journalists like true capitalists, paid some lip service, but not for long. In our own vanity and stupidity, we declined the impish offer of the late Haim Baron, publisher of the economic paper Globes, to put out a rival English-language newspaper the very next day. We preferred to wait for an investor with deeper pockets and actually conducted talks with German-based tycoon Eduard Sarussi, whose generous monthly stipends would later bring down Israeli President Ezer Weizman. When those contacts broke down, the Jerusalem Post rebels found themselves alone, abandoned and mostly unemployed. Landau would exact belated revenge a few years later by setting up an English edition of Haaretz that would rival the post, but the rebels themselves dispersed in all directions.

The opposition to Levy and Hollinger and the attempt to resist the first significant takeover of a news outlet by a tycoon who sought to serve the right in general and Netanyahu in particular, had collapsed. The Israeli media and public would become painfully acquainted with the names of wannabe media moguls like Nimrodi, Dankner, Adelson and now Shaul Elovitch, currently under investigation for allegedly bribing Netanyahu with positive coverage in his popular news site Walla, but the subjugation of the Post was ground zero for the oligarchic assault on the Israeli media. Public broadcasting had always been subject to government and political intervention, but this was the first “hostile” takeover of a private newspaper. The Post rebels thought they were fighting for the integrity and autonomy of journalists, but they ended up enshrining their weakness instead.

Former Hollinger executive David Radler holds onto a stack of files while talking to a couple of his employees outside his Vancouver, B.C. office, Friday, Aug. 19, 2005.
AP

The last and most destructive phase of our naive campaign played out in the ensuing two years in Israel’s Labor Courts. The test case was a suit for severance pay brought by magazine editor Joanna Yehiel, whom Levy had urged to include flattering portraits of his friends from the army in her weekend publication. In April 1993, the Jerusalem Labor Court found in Yehiel’s favor, and in doing so tried to create a new and ambitious constitutional norm. Judge Elisheva Barak, wife of the famed former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, recognized an owner’s right to set the newspaper’s political direction, issue general guidelines and dismiss anyone who refused to toe the line but as long as the journalist is employed, he or she deserves protection not only from state intervention but also from their own publishers.

 “Is a journalist like any other worker?” Barak asked, and answered in the negative. Contrary to A J Liebling’s famous maxim that “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own it”, Barak sought to bestow some of that freedom on journalists as well. The critical importance of a free press in modern society requires an adaptation of what Barak described as the “anachronistic” approach in countries such as the United States and Great Britain, which limit the scope of press freedom to non-intervention by the state. Barak sought to import new norms from several European countries, including Germany, which grant journalists more immunities from employers than those given in regular labor laws. Democracy requires that the public receive its information from various sources in which journalistic autonomy is guaranteed, to protect it from a potential information cartel managed by business tycoons who can dictate content and thus control public discourse.

Our joy at Barak’s surprising formulation of a journalistic declaration of independence was great, but short-lived. Hearing the Post’s appeal, the National Labor Court, headed by Judge Menachem Goldberg, crushed the lower court’s judgment. It agreed that journalists who resign from newspapers for reasons of conscience are entitled to full severance pay as if they were dismissed, but rejected Barak’s efforts to create a new constitutional protection out of thin air. The right to property is supreme, the court ruled, and any attempt to curtail a publisher’s right to tell his own journalists what to write would violate it. The court was so displeased with Barak’s “activism” that it explicitly reprimanded her for “handing out grades” to the proud American and British legal traditions of sanctifying press freedom, even it resides only with newspaper owners. As the popular movie The Post shows, the decision to publish or not publish the Pentagon Papers was ultimately left to the Washington Post’s publisher, Katherine Graham, rather than the newspaper’s esteemed editor, Ben Bradlee.

Barak envisaged the mad rush of tycoons with vested interests to buy Israeli media outlets, but she could not predict the age of the Internet, in which a thousand flowers may be blooming but web giants are bleeding traditional journalism dry. Nor could she have foreseen the concerted attacks by today’s right wing on journalism and on the truth itself. The only constant, then as now, is Netanyahu and his drive to impose on Israel a Russian or Venezuelan media model, in which oligarchs willingly submit to the government in exchange for extensive financial rewards.

Netanyahu became the darling of the new Jerusalem Post. He enjoyed years of doting coverage, even after Hollinger sold the newspaper in 2004, albeit with far less ardor. Netanyahu’s successful inducement of a friendly tycoon to buy a newspaper, dictate its content and subjugate its journalists without eliciting any significant opposition whetted his appetite for evermore, which is how he got to where he is today.