The front-page headline of Israel Hayom, the paper owned by U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson, strongly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday morning over his handling of the Temple Mount crisis, dubbing the matter "Netanyahu's demonstration of helplessness."
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The subheading termed Israel's response to events on the Temple Mount as "feeble and frightened."
Read more: Netanyahu was forced to backtrack once again – but this time it was his own fault (Amos Harel) ■ Temple Mount crisis shows that right-wing bluster is ultimately followed by capitulation (Ravit Hecht)
Up until now, the newspaper has ostentatiously and unwaveringly supported the prime minister. When Netanyahu is criticized, from either side of the political spectrum, Israel Hayom tends to place the premier's position in the main headline and include commentaries that defend him.
However, the accompanying analysis in Wednesday's paper by political reporter Mati Tuchfeld, who has defended the prime minister in the past, changes tack.
"Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to lead a line of Israeli helplessness in the face of the powerful Islamic movements that control the Jews' holy place with a strong hand," Tuchfeld wrote. "But unlike previous prime ministers, the measure that Netanyahu led in the cabinet the day before yesterday is one that is directly aimed against his political base."
Adelson, the owner of the Las Vegas Sands casino and the largest donor to U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign, has historically been supportive of Netanyahu. The apparent change in the editorial line comes following changes in personnel at the head of the paper. Boaz Bismuth recently replaced Amos Regev as editor-in-chief. Newspaper correspondents said that while Israel Hayom does maintain a right-center ideological line, Bismuth gives them greater journalistic freedom.
However, two journalists the new editor-in-chief fired in the past two months, Dan Margalit and Mordechai Gilat, claimed that their dismissals were due to their criticism of the prime minister. Israel Hayom rejected that allegation and said they were let go to reduce the paper's operating costs.
Israel Hayom's apparent volte-face on Netanyahu is also connected to the relationship between Netanyahu and Adelson, which is not what it used to be. Recorded conversations revealed that Netanyahu had reached a deal with Arnon Mozes, the owner and publisher of Israel Hayom's rival daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, without Adelson's knowledge.
In the recordings, the prime minister apparently agreed to pass a law that would reduce the circulation of Israel Hayom. In evidence given to the Israel Police fraud squad, Adelson and his Israeli-born wife Miriam said they were angry about the conversations.
Margalit, one of the journalists recently fired from Israel Hayom, tweeted Tuesday morning: "Congratulations to Matti Tuchfeld, who finally criticized (from the right) Bibi's monumental failure at the temple Mount in Israel Hayom. Better late than never. Looking forward to the next ones."
Others joined with Margalit's sentiments on Twitter. Miki Rosenthal, a member of Knesset for the Zionist Union who was previously a journalist, captioned a screenshot of the front page: "Israel Hayom returns to the fold of the press. Welcome back."
His party and parliamentary colleague Yoel Hasson captioned his own screenshot: "Matti Tuchfeld carries out an impressive backflip in reversing opinion in line with the sponsor's requirement. I warned the PM in the past not to get excited about Tuchfeld's drooling essays."
Barak Ravid, Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent, wondered on Twitter: "I'm waiting for Netanyahu's post on Facebook against Israel Hayom and Matti Tuchfeld. Interesting how he'll label them – radical leftists or fake news?" Tal Scheider, a journalist and political blogger, replied, "The Tuchfeld and Bismuth Depression Industry."
Due to the deterioration of their once-warm relationship, Adelson may have decided to withdraw his personal support for Netanyahu.
The billionaire and the paper's management may also be attempting to rebrand as more objective in that they don't hold back from criticizing the prime minister, out of fears that the current investigations into Netanyahu are likely to reveal just how close his ties were to Adelson.
The investigation may even reveal that Adelson gave Netanyahu a substantial benefit by cultivating public support in his paper.
There was also growing media speculation last month that Adelson may be about to transfer his allegiances to Netanyahu's right-wing rival, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett.