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Is the Latest Purge of Journalists an Attempt to Appease Netanyahu?

Even if the prime minister isn’t behind the firings, the atmosphere of suspicion serves him well

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the nation on a broadcast carried by Channel 12, May 31, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the nation on a broadcast carried by Channel 12, May 31, 2020.Credit: Screenshot from Channel 12
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Thirty-seven employees from Channel 13 News were fired in recent days as part of a series of cutbacks that were already being planned before the coronavirus crisis, but have become even more essential now. Most of them were not household names, but eight of those pink-slipped were on-screen “talent” – making this not just another round of COVID-19 redundancies. The inevitable question is: was there a political angle to the identity of those fired?

No one can answer that for sure. It’s easy to link between at least one of the laid-off journalists – diplomatic correspondent and scoopmeister Barak Ravid, a longtime thorn in the side of Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy machine – and the fact that the channel’s main shareholder, Russian-British billionaire Len Blavatnik, is known to be close of the prime minister. (Full disclosure: Ravid is a former Haaretz journalist, a friend and colleague of the writer.)

LISTEN: Bibi's bonanza, arresting activists and the death of God TVCredit: Haaretz

Blavatnik was questioned by Israeli police investigators in London three years ago and told them Netanyahu had urged him to buy Channel 13’s predecessor, Channel 10, whose news division had long been seen as the premier’s nemesis. Gidi Weitz quoted the prime minister as telling the billionaire: “It’s a terrible business with terrible people … but it’s not a bad idea. Israel needs different people in the media world. … Good if you can buy it.”

But of course, things are never quite that simple. Who knows what the level of the relationship is right now between Blavatnik and Netanyahu? The tycoon may no longer be interested in helping the prime minister, especially if it means getting further enmeshed in the corruption investigations against him. Are his business interests in Israel crucial enough for him to go out of his way to shut down vocal critics of the prime minister?

And even if Len and Bibi are still close mates, Blavatnik is the kind of businessman who doesn’t want to be written about as if he’s suppressing freedom of speech on behalf of a politician. He’s not like Sheldon or Miriam Adelson, who have been shameless in financing a slavishly pro-Netanyahu rag (Israel Hayom), or the mysterious Georgian oligarch Mikhael Mirilashvili, who bankrolls Channel 20 – a low-cost propaganda channel whose open racism would make Fox News blush.

Channel 13 is still publishing hard-hitting reports nightly on the latest revelations from Netanyahu’s corruption investigations. Its small, determined team of legal and crime reporters, and commentators, is still driving the prime minister’s residence mad, yet none of its members have been fired.

Rumors aside, it’s impossible to assess at this point to what degree Ravid and some of the lesser-known journalists were let go simply to balance the books, and how much they were sacrifices to assuage the beloved leader. But even if the decision-making was purely financial, it’s impossible to detach the firing of a prominent journalist from a wider struggle over the future of the Israeli media.

Len Blavatnik speaks onstage during the Warner Music Group Pre-Grammy Party on January 25, 2018.Credit: Mike Coppola/GETTY IMAGES

So much of the last decade in Israeli politics has revolved around Netanyahu’s incessant attempts to suborn the combative press and to secure what he has called “a media of my own.”

In late 2014, he brought down his own government and called an election three years early to prevent the passage of a law that would have forced Israel Hayom to charge a minimal price (instead of being given away for free). He almost did the exact same thing in 2017 when his governing coalition partners insisted that the new broadcasting corporation, Kan, come into being. And behind the scenes, there were the alleged secret dealings that led to his indictment and ongoing trial.

The so-called Case 4000 is about Netanyahu allegedly trying to buy favorable coverage on the Walla website in exchange for interfering in regulation and legislation on behalf of the site’s owner, Shaul Elovitch. Case 2000 is about his alleged attempt to reach a deal with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon Mozes, once again for favorable coverage. And even in Case 1000, which is about gifts of champagne and cigars, the prime minister’s benefactors were shareholders in what was then Channel 10.

Netanyahu failed to rein in Yedioth and Walla, and is now a defendant in court alongside their owners. Kan is broadcasting and Channel 10’s former journalists are still enraging him at Channel 13.

On the other hand, along with the fanatically loyal Israel Hayom and Channel 20, the popular Army Radio station has fallen under the control of unabashed “Bibistim,” as the prime minister’s acolytes are called, and there are many of them in influential positions at other news organizations. And it’s hard not to feel most of the broadcast media has been handling Netanyahu with extra care in recent months.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, he has been given unlimited airtime whenever he chooses to address the nation, barely ever taking questions. Three months ago, when his then-Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, carried out a coup against Israeli democracy, refusing to allow the then-majority of opposition lawmakers to hold votes, it barely made the evening news – and even then only halfway through, after all the coronavirus updates.

The pressure – both overt and covert – on the media to fall in line has worked, to a degree. Yet at the same time, much of Israeli journalism remains combative and contrarian.

Barak Ravid doing a live broadcast on Channel 13 News, April 2020.Credit: Screenshot from Channel 13

There are two major misconceptions about the Israeli media. Even now, with so many journalistic strongholds in their grasp, right-wingers still see the media as hopelessly leftist and detached. They have a point. Listen to anything on the main radio or television channels at random, and there’s still a better chance of hearing criticism of the government than praise.

But that has little to do with left-wing control of the media. Rewind 12 years and you’ll find an Israeli media just as critical, if not more, of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his center-left government.

The problem is that Israelis have forgotten what it’s like not to have a Netanyahu or right-wing government, and assume that journalists fulfilling their duty to hold the government to account are doing so because they’re left-wingers.

Any visit to a typical Israeli newsroom – certainly in recent years – will turn up a pretty typical cross-section of Jewish Israelis: secular and religious, right-wingers, left-wingers and, mainly, centrists. In fact, there’s probably a deficit of Arab Israelis and seriously progressive journalists.

On the left, there’s a misconception that the right (that’s the ideological right, not the Bibistim) is less tolerant toward a free and open press than left-wing governments were in the past.

If anything, the Israeli media has flourished under right-wing governments. In the 1950s and ’60s, public broadcasters needed to send their news lineups to the Prime Minister’s Office for authorization. The military censor exercised powers that would be unthinkable today, and most of the newspapers were owned and controlled by political parties and trade unions. As prime minister, Golda Meir even used the Shin Bet security service to keep tabs on the few journalists who seriously challenged her government, and to locate their sources.

Israel’s media only became truly free in the ’70s. Perhaps the key moments came when Haaretz published details about then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s illegal foreign bank account and, after 1977, under Likud governments, which were unaccustomed to handling the troublesome press like their left-wing predecessors.

Then, of course, there were Labour governments that didn’t even have to try very hard to control the media. In the early ’90s, there was very little critical coverage of Rabin’s Oslo process – a reflection of the left-of-center nature of most Israeli journalism at the time. But over a quarter of a century later, Israeli journalism is much less monolithic. And better as a result.

Many of Netanyahu’s greatest critics right now, both in politics and the media, are not left-wingers, and some of the severest criticism of him has nothing to do with ideology. His insidious undermining of Israeli journalism has failed to uproot his detractors. But he has succeeded in steadily toxifying the discourse, whether in the mainstream media or on social media, and many journalists are uncertain where the loyalties of their shadowy shareholders lie.

The latest firings at Channel 13 may or may not have something to do with pressure being applied by Netanyahu. But the suspicion that it could be the case is damage enough.

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