Like Putin and Erdogan: Netanyahu's Plan to Cripple Israeli Media

Former spin doctor reveals the plan conceived by son Yair and supported by wife Sara

Netanyahu reading a newspaper on a flight back from the U.S., 2013
Kobi Gideon / GPO

After he was elected in 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to restructure and cripple the Israeli media much the same way Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan did in their own countries.

That is what a source, who asked not identify, said he took fom the testimony of Nir Hefetz, the key Netanyahu aide who has turned state’s evidence in three separate investigations that police are pursuing against the prime minister.

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The source called the media campaign, which came into full flower after Netanyahu won reelection for a second time in 2015, the driving force behind the champagne-and-cigars affair involving Arnon Milchan (Case 1000), the abortive deal with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes (Case 2000) and the tradeoffs Netanyahu made with Shaul Elovitch, formerly Bezeq’s controlling shareholder (Case 4000).

Netanyahu had allegedly sought to swap friendlier coverage from the Yedioth Ahronoth group in exchange for favorable legislation, and had the same goal regarding Bezeq’s Walla! website when he allegedly helped Bezeq with regulatory problems. With Milchan, an Israeli-American Hollywood producer, Netanyahu had encouraged to invest in the Channel 2 TV broadcaster.

The source told TheMarker that Netanyahu was behind the emergence of Russian oligarch David Davidovich as a possible buyer of the Globes financial daily at the end of 2016. Netanyahu also tried to block the launch of the new public broadcaster Kan.

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In response, Netanyahu’s office said: “The prime minister was elected on the basis on his promise to diversify the media in Israel, which the public knows is extremely one-sided to the left. Of course, all the prime minister’s actions were done legally and in accordance with the mandate that the public gave him. The prime minister’s determination to break the monopoly of opinion in the media made him and his family the target of wild and unrestrained attacks.”

According to the source, Hefetz has testified that Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, was the one who initiated the idea of rebalancing the power of the media in relation to the government, and strengthening the latter. Sara Netanyahu supported the plan and Benjamin Netanyahu approved it.

Yair Netanyahu’s prestige rose greatly after the 2015 elections, during which he and two of his friends from his days in the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit – Topaz Luk and Jonathan Urich – offered several successful campaign ideas. That included the now infamous warning to voters in the final stretch that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”

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No written evidence in the form of emails or PowerPoint presentations of the media drive exists – the work was done by telephone and face-to-face meetings, according to Hefetz, who said he participated in some of the meetings.

In the last few days reporter Guy Peleg of Israel Television News has obtained small parts of the recordings Hefetz made, including portions related to improper procedures at the prime minister’s residence.

Hefetz himself began his career in the media, starting as an editor at Yedioth Ahronoth and, during a brief truce between Netanyahu and Mozes, moved to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009 to serve as chief spokesman. It was from that period that the recordings which surfaced this week in the media were made.

In 2011-12, Hefetz returned to the media world, serving as editor of the Maariv daily when it was controlled by fallen tycoon Nochi Dankner. When Maariv nearly folded and changed hands, Hefetz became the personal spokesman of the Netanyahu family and a host of other private clients.

Hefetz has told investigators that he served as the go-between in the alleged quid pro quo between Elovitch and Netanyahu, in which Bezeq was given billions of shekels in regulatory relief from the Communications Ministry after 2015 in return for favorable coverage of the Netanyahu couple. Netanyahu served as communications minister after 2015 as well as prime minister.

Hefetz also relayed messages between Netanyahu and Mozes on a deal whereby Netanyahu would have backed legislation undermining Yedioth’s chief rival, Israel Hayom, in exchange for friendly coverage. Milchan also served as a go-between and Hefetz recorded conversations with him as well.

In another tape, which was revealed by Channel 10 news in February, Hefetz is heard meeting with two “senior global media executives” urging them to launch a new TV broadcaster in Israel. Hefetz said the plan was scuttled after it was revealed by TheMarker.

Hefetz was also the person who brought Davidovich to Israel to make a bid for Globes after controlling shareholder Eliezer Fishman was declared insolvent. Davidovich denied any connection to the prime minister at the time, but a source who was involved with the plan told TheMarker that Hefetz had been involved.