Analysis

Netanyahu's Media Mania: How the Prime Minister Meddled With No Fewer Than 13 Israeli News Outlets

With the publication of the suspicions against Netanyahu, the big picture of his efforts to control the media is coming into focus

Prime Minister Netanyahu has a hard time letting go of the public broadcaster
Amos Biderman

The following incident happened in March 2012. During a Knesset committee discussion on the looming financial collapse of Channel 10, a bill arrived that was supposed to give the commercial network breathing room by extending its license, which had to be done through legislation.

But upon reading the bill, or rather one of its articles, the parliamentarians and the media industry went into shock. It was a blatant power grab by the prime minister, through a digression into reform at rival network Channel 2. The clause would give the premier exclusive authority to decide the fate of Channel 2’s news company.

Before the reform belatedly effected late last year, Channel 2 had been a single network owned by two companies, Reshet and Keshet, which took turns determining the content, splitting the airtime. A decision was made to divide Channel 2 into two networks broadcasting on different channels. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu helped himself through the bill to the absolute authority to decide whether and when Channel 2 would be divided.

In other words, in May 2012 Netanyahu bypassed the communications minister at the time, Moshe Kahlon, and decided that he, not the professionals at the ministry, would rule on the future of Channel 2 news.

Explaining his motivation, Netanyahu kept referring to “competition.” The prime minister abhors monopoly anywhere, his office explained: He would not allow a monopoly to exist over news broadcasting in Israel. As the outcry mounted, the prime minister realized he’d reached too far, and that section of the bill evaporated.

By the way, the split took place on November 1, 2017. Keshet and Reshet became separate channels. Keshet broadcasts on Channel 12, Reshet on Channel 13 and Channel 10 moved of course to channel 14. Such is life.

That is but one example of Netanyahu trying to meddle with the Israeli media. We have more. With the publication of the suspicions against Netanyahu and the police’s recommendations in some of the cases, the big picture of the prime minister’s efforts to control the media and obtain fawning coverage is coming into focus. All the media – television, internet, radio and of course, the printed press.

Television

During its 15 years of operation, Channel 10 trembled at the brink of bankruptcy and collapse more than once. Over a decade ago Netanyahu personally pushed its owners, Ron Lauder and Arnon Milchan, to fund the company. But after Channel 10 published news of the “Bibitours” scandal, Netanyahu decided the network had to die.

The police recently recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for accepting gifts worth about a million shekels (over $280,000) from tycoons, one of whom was Milchan, who gave the prime minister regular consignments of expensive Cuban cigars and expensive champagne.

After the police recommendations, Netanyahu himself admitted for the first time that he had indeed taken action to shutter Channel 10 – but he insisted he had done so while Milchan still owned a stake. Ergo, Milchan may have given him goodies but Netanyahu didn’t reciprocate – he says he even acted against Milchan’s interests. Yet the fact is that Milchan himself had been fighting with the other shareholders and preferred that the network be shut down.

In 2015, according to the police, Netanyahu meddled in the negotiations to sell Channel 10 to the RGE group, where one of the owners was another of his associates, Len Blavatnik. After the channel changed hands, TheMarker reported, there were attempts to censor its content, for example a program about Meni Naftali, a housekeeper who sued the Netanyahus. The show only aired after the top echelon of Channel 10 threatened to quit if it didn’t.

In 2016, Rami Sadan, another associate of Netanyahu’s, was appointed as chairman of Channel 10 News. His appointment was only voided after Haaretz reported that Sadan had lied on his resume. As for Milchan and Netanyahu, they also seem to have had issues together regarding Channel 2. The police suspect Netanyahu tried to promote the sale of shares in Channel 2 to Milchan, perhaps even merge it with Keshet. (All that might well have helped influence the content of Channel 2 news.) Netanyahu and Milchan met, with Filber, the premier’s long-standing aide who turned state’s witness this week.

Then there was the fuss over public broadcast in Israel, for decades the fief of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. After protracted death throes, that body was finally replaced with the Kan broadcast company. Netanyahu had opposed the reform, possibly because it was easier to pull strings at the enfeebled, doddering IBA than at the spanking new company. In fact the premier almost pulled down the whole coalition over the issue; ultimately in 2017 the Knesset passed a law splitting the corporation into a regular broadcaster and a news broadcaster. The whole thing is now in court.

Then there’s Channel 20, which was supposed to be, by its licensing terms, a “Jewish heritage” channel, but really focuses on news – and unabashedly supports Netanyahu. It’s like a television version of Israel Hayom. More than once has Channel 20 featured exclusive uncritical interviews with Netanyahu and his wife Sara. Thing is, the Knesset recently passed a law relieving Channel 20 of its regulatory commitments and turning it into a commercial television channel that can compete with Channel 2 and Channel 10 without having regulatory requirements.

Press

Regarding the print media, there’s the so-called Case 2000, which involves Netanyahu’s backroom negotiations with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the powerful Yedioth Ahronoth news group. It now appears that Netanyahu and Mozes have been dancing the fandango since 2009, not 2014 as had been suspected until now. They were talking directly, too.

Netanyahu was allegedly proposing to hamstring none other than Israel Hayom, a free newspaper that’s most favorable to the Israeli premier and published by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, in exchange for favorable coverage of himself in Yedioth. Israel Hayom is, most would agree, a propaganda sheet for Netanyahu, who freely acknowledges that he and Adelson are friends. Israel Hayom had been edited by Amos Regev, another friend; it turns out that Netanyahu and Regev would often talk late at night, before the paper would be sent to press.

The police say that despite all that, Netanyahu took real action to reduce Israel Hayom’s circulation and hold up publication of a weekend edition, pursuant to his deal with Mozes in 2009.

Regarding another newspaper, Maariv, today it’s owned by the businessman Eli Azur, but before that it had briefly belonged to the tycoon Nochi Dankner – who was close with Nir Hefetz. This is the same Hefetz who has been arrested in “Case 4000” (involving suspicions that Netanyahu had another quid-pro-quo deal in place, with businessman Shaul Elovitch, for sweetheart media coverage on the news site Walla). In any case, employees at Maariv relate that Hefetz pressed Maariv to provide groveling coverage of Netanyahu.

Internet

Let’s move onto internet, where Israel’s two most influential news sites are Ynet (belonging to Yedioth Ahronoth) and Walla, which belongs to the telecoms company Bezeq, which belongs to Elovitch, who is under arrest.

Ynet is at the heart of Case 2000, suspicions that Netanyahu sought preferential coverage in exchange for curbing Israel Hayom’s circulation and thereby boosting Yedioth’s. In their talks, Mozes even gave Netanyahu names through whom content on Ynet could be influenced.

As for Walla, it’s at the heart of Case 4000, a brand-new beast. To oversimplify slightly, Netanyahu is suspected of replacing the director-general at the Communications Ministry with his man Filber, who overrode the telecomcrats at the ministry to push through favorable rules for Bezeq, which enriched Elovitch, who had taken on massive debt to buy the controlling interest in Bezeq in the first place. In exchange, the investigators suspect, Elovitch influenced Walla to provide toadying coverage for Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. The police are in these very days grilling the site’s editors.

Radio

Netanyahu seems not to have neglected the ether either. He probably hoped to gain control of Reshet Bet, which broadcasts chiefly current events shows, through the public broadcasting company Kan.

As for Army Radio, the latest wrinkle in that popular station’s fate is a proposal to move its control from the army to the Defense Ministry – which would increase political involvement. At this stage the attorney general has shot down the notion.

As for Filber, in 2006 he made a proposal that evoked extreme reactions: that a new government authority be set up, which would control all media in Israel. All, public and private alike. Filber proposed that the communications minister – at the time, it was Netanyahu himself – personally appoint the authority’s chief. No search committee, just Netanyahu. The proposal fell through.

In the past Netanyahu pushed through a bill that retroactively legalized the split of a certain station into two. The station was owned by David Ben Bassat, a Likud associate and owner of Radio Radius and 91 FM.

Netanyahu consistently claims to be pro-competition and pluralism, but the suspicions against him indicate otherwise.

His office commented that the claim is ludicrous and wrong, that for years Netanyahu has led a stated policy to encourage and diversify media in Israel, reflecting the spectrum of opinions among the general public. His determination to make changes and break the monopolies of opinions in the media turned him and his family into targets for vicious attack, his office claimed – attacks that will not deter him.