The Dangerous Combination of Netanyahu's Biggest Obsessions

Netanyahu’s fixation with controlling the media is dangerous enough; controlling law enforcement will be worse

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An image of Netanyahu on a placard is seen through a fence during a demonstration against the Israeli Prime Minister, June 2020.
An image of Benjamin Netanyahu on a placard is seen through a fence during a demonstration against the Israeli Prime Minister, June 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

If the public had been privy to Channel 13’s financial reports, it would probably have been easier for the network’s owner to fire dozens of its employees on the grounds of necessary cutbacks. Who isn’t cutting back at this time? Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have lost their jobs. But the financial state of the network, which was created by merging Channel 10 with the broadcast franchisee Reshet, begs a different question: who invested in it, given that it’s losing hundreds of millions of shekels, and what exactly did they get out of it. This question applied to the owners of Channel 10 before the merger, Yossi Maimon and Arnon Milchan; and still applies now, to Channel 13’s owner Len Blavatnik. Nobody came out of this ahead of the game. So the question isn’t why people are being fired; it’s why the station’s owner made this investment to begin with, and why he continues to finance it.

Blavatnik is a billionaire who made his fortune from the privatization in Russia after the fall of the Communist regime. He also owns two companies in Israel: Clal Industries, which owns the Nesher cement monopoly, and Channel 13.

Blavatnik could have gotten along without either of these investments. He came into Channel 13 at the urging of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, as reported by Gidi Weitz, wanted to prevent the network from falling into the hands of businessman Ilan Shiloach, who lashes out daily at the Netanyahus in tweets.

Channel 13’s takeover was directly connected to one of Netanyahu’s main preoccupations throughout his years of governing: to mold the Israeli media in his favor; to bring in wealthy investors who will treat him well and keep out people not enamored of him; to promote journalists and commentators who identify with him and to weaken his opponents. He has quite an extraordinary obsession with the media, which he views as a key tool for the stability of his government and the mental stability of the people living at his house.

For Netanyahu, the establishment of the free newspaper Israel Hayom by Sheldon Adelson was a dream come true: a media outlet run and maintained solely for his benefit, which showcases and lauds his achievements, ignores his failures and is heedful to his wants. This whetted his appetite to clone this sympathetic model in other media outlets. That’s how he became entangled, together with Shaul Elovitch, the owner of Bezeq and the Walla news site, in Case 4000, in which he is accused of bribery; and in Case 2000, where he is charged with breach of faith based on recorded conversations with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, whom Netanyahu wanted to publish articles favorable to himself, in return for which the PM would purportedly weaken the strength of Israel Hayom. Case 1000 is about gifts of cigars and champagne but also touches on the media, because Arnon Milchan owned Channel 10, which he subsequently sold to Blavatnik.

The dismissals at Channel 13 first and foremost hurt the people who were fired, but they are also an attempt to draw a map of the powers that be, and to reset boundaries for the journalists who remain there, and at other media outlets as well.

Netanyahu believes his deep involvement in shaping Israel’s media map is key to maintaining his grip on government. But if he is convicted of criminal offenses, his obsession becomes more dangerous. To stay in control, now he needs “soldiers” for his legal battle against the officers of the law, from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to the police force itself, which is now headed by Netanyahu’s crony, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana; and against the three judges hearing his case.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu. To stay in control, now he needs “soldiers” for his legal battle against the officers of the law.Credit: Yoav Dudkevitz

It is important for the media to present a range of political opinions, but this is not about balanced coverage of political issues; rather, it is about weakening law enforcement. Neutering journalists and the media is a danger to Israeli democracy. Neutering law enforcement will be its downfall.

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