Analysis |

Netanyahu Dreamed of an Israeli Fox News. This Is What He Got Instead

The likes of Rupert Murdoch and Larry Ellison may hugely admire Netanyahu, but they weren’t about to bankroll an entire Israeli news channel for him, leaving the former prime minister with a local consolation prize

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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The staff of new Israeli news station Channel 14.
The staff of new Israeli news station Channel 14.Credit: Screenshot from Channel 14
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In the second week of state witness Nir Hefetz’s testimony, toward the end of the main examination, the prosecution wanted to further embellish in the judges’ minds the media obsession of Defendant Number One. Hefetz was happy to oblige, and poured out stories of how his old boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, had sent him around the world to meet with press barons and impress on them the need to buy, invest and set up news organizations that would serve his agenda.

It was a who’s who of media moguls. Hefetz had been to see Rupert Murdoch in London and discussed the founding of a Fox-like news channel in Israel. He met with Larry Ellison, who was apparently willing to invest $29 million in the venture. He met with Len Blavatnik – the richest man in Britain – to get him to invest in Channel 10 (now part of Channel 13), and also with Axel Springer group CEO Mathias Döpfner, in order to convince him to buy Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Hefetz says he wasn’t entirely convinced that any of these ventures would work. Netanyahu had already handpicked an editor-in-chief for the news channel: a right-wing polemicist who had zero experience in television but had written a book called “How Netanyahu Made Israel an Empire.”

The only proposition that did actually go ahead was Blavatnik’s purchase of a majority stake in Channel 13. But even that didn’t work out for Netanyahu, who complained so much about the treatment he received on the channel that Blavatnik eventually stopped taking his calls.

It seems that even when friendly billionaires do buy up media assets at his suggestion, they don’t always follow through.

Some do, however. This week, at the height of Hefetz’s testimony, Netanyahu had at least some compensation when he arrived at the new studios of Channel 14 (formerly Channel 20), which staged a glitzy relaunch to go with the new number it got on the TV remote control.

A presenter on the newly launched Channel 14, which is billing itself as “the news channel of Israel.”Credit: Screenshot from Channel 14

And how better to celebrate than with a fawning “interview” by the channel’s star duo, Erel Segal and Shimon Riklin? It didn’t consist of any probing questions, with the exception of Segal almost stuttering when he raised the nightmare possibility of Netanyahu retiring rather than fighting to get back into office.

“You’re bringing light against the channels of darkness,” Netanyahu complimented his simpering interviewers. “You’re not just giving a voice to the right wing but to the truth.”

Other than that, Channel 14 doesn’t have much to offer. It’s a very low-budget affair, based on a few tired talk-show formats, with very few features produced outside its single studio.

Another celebration there this week was over a decision to stop inviting the sole center-left pundit to its “The Patriots” panel. Lest anyone mistake them.

Netanyahu dreamed of an Israeli version of Fox News – a glitzy, professional and hyper-partisan network owned by the mightiest of media titans. Instead, he got this fly-by-night, zero-ratings, dog and pony show that was originally Israel’s “Tradition Channel.” Under the directorship of the secretive Mirilashvili family, it is now billing itself as “the news channel of Israel.”

Hefetz wasn’t asked in court why Murdoch’s news channel didn’t materialize. But it’s not too difficult to surmise why: Murdoch, for all the criticism of his media empire, doesn’t just set up newspapers and television channels for the heck of it. He appreciates good journalism and many of his media properties do just that, and he’s a businessman who is focused on the bottom line.

Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch.Credit: Mike Segar/REUTERS

A Netanyahu-worshipping channel would have achieved neither. It wouldn’t have featured any journalism worthy of the name, and would have struggled to break even in the tiny, crowded Israeli television industry, let alone make a profit. Ellison’s $29 million, if he was indeed prepared to invest it, would have been swallowed up within a year.

Both men may hugely admire Netanyahu, but they weren’t about to bankroll an entire news channel for him. That’s not the kind of businesspeople they are.

For reasons still unclear, the Mirilashvilis are prepared to fund the joke that is Channel 14. Sheldon and Miri Adelson poured hundreds of millions into Israel Hayom (aka the “Bibiton”). But that is just another form of political donation (using a controversial loophole in Israel’s political finance law), and they have already shown in the U.S. that they are prepared to spend massive sums on their favored politicians. Following her husband’s death, it’s clear that Miri Adelson is happy to continue doing so and it was likely her idea – and her politics – all along.

But even Israel Hayom isn’t good enough for Netanyahu, who has complained in the past that the free daily doesn’t really influence the news agenda in Israel. He and his wife Sara fell out with the Adelsons after their demands became too much even for Miri.

Whether or not the court evidence of Netanyahu’s obsession for securing what he once called “my media” will be enough to convict him of bribery and fraud remains to be seen. A central strategy of his defense will be the claim that codefendants Shaul and Iris Elovitch could hardly have been bribing him with “favorable coverage” when their Walla website still carried so much critical stuff on him.

What’s clear is that he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. From his perspective, there’s nothing wrong with a website, newspaper or television channel singularly singing his praises. After all, they would only be telling the truth.

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