Since Monday morning, the question most captivating Israel’s political and media classes is: “Was Boaz Bismuth fired?” He and his boss tried to create the impression that the decision to replace him after five years as editor-in-chief of Israel Hayom, the Netanyahu-worshipping free newspaper owned by billionaire Miriam Adelson, was an amicable separation.
Bismuth said all the right things in his lachrymose farewell column about the need for “new blood in the system” and about his desire for “new challenges.” Adelson paid tribute to his “devotion and excellence” as editor. A “senior source” at the paper denied there had been a firing, but it’s hard to see this as an orderly and mutually-agreed-upon succession.
For a start, the suddenness of the announcement, without a new editor being named, indicates something going wrong. And anyone who has met Bismuth over the past five years, or even seen him on television on his regular Friday night slot on Channel 12, knows just how much he enjoyed his job. The status, the money, the opportunities to travel and cover any international event he chose, including the multiple interviews he got with Donald Trump thanks to the Adelsons’ massive campaign donations – more than any other non-American journalist. Bismuth is only 57 and in fine shape; he could and would have gone on for many years if he were allowed.
So if he has been shown the door, what does that mean?
Is it connected to the fact that 14 years after founding Israel Hayom, back in 2007 when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, the previous time Benjamin Netanyahu was leader of the opposition, Netanyahu is now negotiating a plea bargain that will almost certainly spell the end of his long political career? In recent months, there has been a gradual softening of Israel Hayom’s attitude toward Netanyahu’s successor, which culminated Friday in a very friendly interview with Naftali Bennett.
“Israel Hayom is another media organization of the left,” tweeted a frustrated Yair Netanyahu. “And another private propaganda tool of Bennett.” He even called the paper, which has for so long been known as the “Bibiton” – a combo of his father’s nickname and “iton,” the Hebrew word for newspaper – “the Bennetton.”
But this isn’t just a sudden break between the Adelson and Netanyahu families. The feud has been brewing for a while.
Netanyahu and the Adelsons go back over three decades. Back in 1991, when the political meteor was still a deputy minister, he helped organize a unique venue for millionaire Sheldon Adelson’s second marriage, to Israeli doctor Miriam Ochshorn: the Chagall State Hall in the Knesset. The media criticized the use of the hall – which is reserved for national events – for the wedding of a foreign (then anonymous) businessman, but the Adelsons’ gratitude put him in good stead. Fifteen years later, Adelson began pouring money into the Israeli media at Netanyahu’s request.
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Bismuth has two arguments that he constantly repeats when the business model and politics of Israel Hayom, which has cost the Adelsons hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, is criticized. There are many free newspapers around the world, he claims, that make money from advertising.
This is a fallacy. To make a profit, the free newspapers around the world employ a tiny team of journalists who mainly copy news from other outlets, and their distribution is based on local mass-transport networks. Israel Hayom has a full team of dozens of editors and reporters, and is expensively distributed across the entire country. It carries less advertising than other papers, which is nowhere near sufficient to cover its costs. It doesn’t need to. Its owners can afford to lose the money and aren’t interested in making a profit.
And then Bismuth claims that Israel Hayom is no different from right-wing newspapers in countries like the U.S., Britain and France. But while the right-wing papers in those countries support parties and agendas, and are capable of criticizing right-wing leaders when they fail to live up to their standards, Israel Hayom, up until the last few months, has slavishly served Netanyahu.
How useful has Israel Hayom been to Netanyahu? According to the latest TGI survey, it has the highest level of exposure of any Israeli newspaper (31 percent of the adult public). But that hasn’t translated into influence. Despite the investment, Israel Hayom rarely, if ever, breaks stories and hasn’t established any hold over the news agenda, as Netanyahu himself has complained in private.
In his secret meetings with his nemesis, Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes (the key figure in one of Netanyahu’s corruption cases), Netanyahu claimed he could convince Adelson to limit Israel Hayom’s distribution, if Mozes would change Yedioth’s critical coverage of him.
The Adelsons were dumbfounded when they discovered this, as well as other things the Netanyahus were saying about them in private – and in the last years of Sheldon Adelson’s life (he died in January 2021), the couples grew distant. But Israel Hayom’s editorial line remained faithfully pro-Netanyahu: the Adelsons were pragmatic; even they realized they couldn’t unseat him. As long as he remained prime minister, they would support him.
But now, Miriam Adelson has no reason to stick by Netanyahu. She understands that Netanyahu’s attitude toward her and her husband was instrumental. He was prepared to sacrifice Israel Hayom as a bargaining chip in his dealings with Mozes, who owns a much more influential paper. He wanted Israel Hayom as his own political asset, but cared less for the Adelsons’ own influence as media owners.
Now that Netanyahu is no longer prime minister and may be on his way out, Miriam Adelson isn’t about to spend more money on him. Replacing Bismuth is her high-handed way of showing that.
And it isn’t only Netanyahu who values the Adelson money. Miriam Adelson has in recent years held a series of discreet meetings with Israel’s potential leaders, not just with those on the hard right but also some who are more usually seen as centrists.
They all came when summoned to her Tel Aviv apartment. It wasn’t that different from the “Adelson auditions,” in which the couple would receive aspiring Republican candidates in their suite at the top of the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, each anxious for their endorsement and the millions entailed.
The assumption is that she has selected Bennett as her new favorite, but that is far from certain. Bennett is the prime minister for now, and Adelson has decided not to support Netanyahu’s desire to bring him down – and therefore he receives her backing. For now.
Does that mean she will continue to endorse him once he steps down in August 2023 and is replaced by Yair Lapid? It’s much too early to say. We’ll have to pick up a copy of Israel Hayom on a street corner and find out then. What’s clear is that she intends to have a champion and will continue to pour her millions into supporting him or her.
There was, of course, much schadenfreude on the part of Netanyahu’s many critics on social media at what looked like Bismuth’s downfall. And while that is a perfectly understandable if rather mean-spirited reaction, it is misplaced. Bismuth is not the problem.
There will be plenty of candidates happy to replace him and take Israel Hayom in the direction Adelson chooses and pays them handsomely to go. And that is the problem. Israel Hayom, with its inexhaustible resources, will now be put at the disposal of not of an ideological movement and set of values, but a politician who will be at the beck and call of their benefactor.
Adelson’s casino money has corrupted Israeli public life for too long and, sadly, it now seems that even with Mr. Adelson dead and buried and his chief beneficiary finally on his way out of politics, the widow-heiress will continue to use the billions she inherited to bolster his toxic legacy.