Netanyahu and the Media

Yonatan Mendel

Binyamin Netanyahu’s relation with, control of and attitude to the media is a central component of his career and ongoing success. Through his years as a furniture salesman, ambassador to the UN and prime minister, Netanyahu has mastered the art of public relations. To stay in power, he has realised that he needs, on the one hand, to have as much control as possible over the media, over what they cover and what they don’t cover; while on the other hand, he needs Israelis to believe that the media are biased against him.

He first came to office in May 1996, six months after his rival, Yitzhak Rabin, was shot dead by an ultranationalist Israeli assassin. The nationalist right-wing camp, headed by Netanyahu, was blamed by much of Israeli society for the incitement that led to Rabin’s assassination. Even Netanyahu, knowing he was about 30 points behind Shimon Peres in the polls, told US officals that the assassination was ‘a disaster for the Jewish people, a disaster for Israel and a disaster for the right which will be decimated if elections are called soon’. Yet on election night six months later, he achieved the impossible: Israelis who went to sleep with Peres still leading in the polls woke up to find that the Netanyahu era had begun.

For 19 of the last 21 years, Israel has been governed by Likud or its offshoots, and Netanyahu has been prime minister for 11 of them (from 1996 to 1999 and since 2009). Yet despite his many years in charge, like Donald Trump or Silvio Berlusconi, he styles himself as an anti-establishment figure: a fearless leader who fights the old elite, a Jewish believer facing up to the leftists ‘who have forgotten what it means to be Jewish’, a martyr who struggles against the odds, fighting for the people, when the media, the system and the political arena are allegedly all against him. Never mind that he is one of the old elite, a rich, Ashkenazi man, unconditionally supported by the most popular newspaper in Israel.

Israel Hayom (‘Israel Today’; do confuse with USA Today) is a free paper with the largest daily circulation in the country. Owned by the American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, it was first published in 2007 with a clear agenda to bring Bibi back to office. In November 2014, the Knesset gave a first reading to the bill to outlaw the free distribution of newspapers with the circulation of Israel Hayom. Netanyahu soon afterwards dissolved the Knesset and called an election. Returned to office, he appointed himself communications minister (he’s still his own foreign minister) to make sure the bill would not be discussed again. He also added a clause to the coalition agreements saying that the coalition members would have to support his media initiatives.

Netanyahu is currently under investigation for meeting secretly with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Aharonoth, Israel Hayom’s biggest rival, and supposedly Netanyahu’s nemesis. The prime minister allegedly promised Mozes he would limit the dissemination of Israel Hayom in return for a promise that Yedioth Aharonoth would support Netanyahu in power. The conversations were recorded, at Netanyahu’s request, by Ari Harow, his chief of staff. The recording was discovered during a police investigation of Harow on bribery and other corruption charges. The meetings apparently also included discussion of the hiring and firing of specific journalists.

Meanwhile, in 2015, there was a bill – initiated by Netanyahu’s government – to replace the old Israeli Broadcasting Authority with a new Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation (Ta’agid Ha-shidur Ha-Yisraeli), also known as KAN (‘Here’). Netanyahu thought the IBA was old-fashioned and inefficient. But as KAN started to take shape, the Knesset committee gave it the powers and freedoms of a genuinely public channel. The names of the journalists they were hiring went public. It was crystal clear that this was not what Netanyahu had in mind.

‘What is the point of establishing public broadcasting,’ asked Miri Regev, the culture minister and one of Netanyahu’s most loyal allies in the Likud, ‘if we cannot control it?’ Everything was put on hold. Netanyahu tried to postpone KAN’s launch, saying he was concerned about the families of the old IBA workers (whom he’d accused of inefficiency during the last election campaign). Then he said he would introduce a law that would give the prime minister control over KAN (and the rest of the media too). Then he threatened to dismantle the whole idea. Then – you guessed it – he said he was ready to call another election.

At the end of March, a solution was reached following a meeting between Netanyahu and Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister: the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation will go ahead as planned – the launch will be on 15 May – with just one small change. The corporation will broadcast every kind of programme, from weather to drama serials, with one exception: the news. That will be the responsibility of another body, the News Broadcasting Authority. No prizes for guessing who will have his grip on that one.


  • 10 May 2017 at 1:38pm
    Fred Skolnik says:
    Whatever one thinks of Netanyahu or the media in general, the fact is that Israeli news broadcasting and current affairs programs with thiei endless talk shows are a freewheeling affair with a strong bias toward the center and left and will continue to be so even if one of the three news broadcasting networks is restructured. In any case, it is a little naïve to ascribe magical powers to media reporting and commentary. They don't shape opinion but at best reinforce biases and give people new arguments.

    • 10 May 2017 at 1:56pm
      IPFreely says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Not sure what "magical powers" you mean here, or who is referring to them as a panacea for the corruption within the Israeli elite. Media are rather more important than you give them credit for; ever heard of the Pentagon papers? It was the research of a couple of media men that helped to reveal the misdemeanours of the Nixon presidency. You are probably not a fan of Wiki Leaks, but wouldn't you agree that Snowden did the world a great service by passing on his knowledge to the media?

    • 10 May 2017 at 2:53pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ IPFreely
      I can't really say what Wikileaks or even the Pentagon Papers have achieved. The cornerstone of a democracy is in fact its legal system and the traditions that sustain it. The guardians of democracy are the courts. All the investigative reporting and all the talk shows in the world have not had the slightest effect on how governments operate. That is true in Israel and everywhere else. No greater myth exists, for example, than the myth of Woodward and Bernstein as the heroes of Watergate when aside from the publicity factor their reporting was in fact irrelevant to the official investigations that were going over the same ground as they were in a far more timely, thorough and professional manner. The Senate Watergate hearings were not the result of their reporting or dependent on it but part of these ongoing investigations, nor did any of the evidence that led to the conviction of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean and the others, not to mention Nixon's resignation, derive from this reporting.

      The Israeli medea will continue to do what it has always done, no matter who is in government and no matter what kind of pressures are exerted.

    • 16 May 2017 at 3:56pm
      John Cowan says: @ Fred Skolnik
      What's your reason for thinking that without W & B and other similar reporters Congress would have been moved to act at all?

    • 17 May 2017 at 4:06am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ John Cowan
      That is like suggesting that suspected criminals under police investigation would not be indicted if the media did not report that they were being investigated. In this case the indictments were the result of ongoing FBI investigations. Reporting details of such ongoing investigations does more harm than good, alerting suspects to what the authorities have on them. It is true that the media very occasionally beat investigators to the punch and even hit a home run once in a very great while, but the price they demand for what is essentially the fraudulent claim that they are the guardians of democracy is enormous – the invasion of people's privacy the moment some ambitious reporter determines that their lives are newsworthy and the festival of speculation, gossip innuendo and calumny that surrounds their "scoops" and "exposés" in the meaningless competition between themselves. As for the public's right to know, the truth is that the man in the street knows as much about the world around him as a medieval peasant.

    • 17 May 2017 at 1:48pm
      XopherO says: @ Fred Skolnik
      I find this response a disgraceful distortion of what has happened over the years. What Netanyahu has done is little different from Erdogan or Putin.

      Private Eye has exposed hundreds of cases of corruption etc, some of which have been taken up by police, and/or the mainstream press, and resulted in prosecutions, resignations, you name it. The old Insight team at the Sunday Times is much missed. Saville, the Rotherham sex abuse, in both of which the police and other officials were useless, depended on independent journalists and brave bloggers for exposure.
      And don't kid me about the independence and effectiveness of the FBI.

      It is true some sections of the press deliberately dumb down the man in the street, but this doesn't mean all the press is useless.

    • 17 May 2017 at 3:19pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ XopherO
      With all due respect, I doubt if you know enough about Israeli society or the Israeli media to determine what is a disgraceful response.

      I think too that you are being taken in by what journalists claim as exposes when in almost all cases they are reporting police investigations. On the other hand, if the media wish to invest their enormous resources in doing work that the police do infinitely better or pointing fingers and stirring up tempests in a teacup for no practical purpose or taking one out of a million ordinary citizens under their wing and solving his problems, that is their business, but it is not worth the enormous price the public pays – the invasion of people's privacy by an army of reporters who will expose anything that gets them a screaming headline. Into the hands of these reporters has been placed one of the most important functions in a modern society – the control of information. Neither in terms of morality or capability are they the right people for the job.

    • 17 May 2017 at 8:35pm
      XopherO says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Actually I do know a bit about Israel and its media having worked there, albeit briefly, with Israeli colleagues, Labour supporters, just after the assassination of Rabin - they were very distressed by what had happened. I think Jerusalem was one of the most unpleasant places I have ever visited, new and old, and Tel Aviv/Jaffa one of the most likeable. I met the Minister for Education, amongst other interesting and revealing meetings and conversations. So I am not completely ignorant. As Sarkozy said, Netanyahu is a liar, which is surely among his nicer characteristics!

      But enough, you simply did not respond to my points about the best of the British press, plus the incompetence/corruption in the Met in recent years makes one very grateful for some elements in the national and regional press. And not forgetting West Yorkshire or Thames Valley. Your position is extreme and untenable in the face of the evidence. But rave on!

    • 18 May 2017 at 3:42am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ XopherO
      It is actually you who have not responded to my points.

      I don't know how many millions or tens of millions of police files are opened every year in Great Britain. You tell me how many of them the media are responsible for.

      I am not suggesting that we shut down the news organizations, any more than I would suggest that we ban poorly written books. By all means, let them go on doing exactly what they have always done if that's what people want or need, but without their special privileges. Let them be hauled into court for hounding and harassing whomever they deem newsworthy and sued, fined or prosecuted for stalking them. Let them pay a price that hurts for their gossip, innuendo and calumny.

      This would obviously inhibit them. The question is whether the public would suffer, no longer know what is really going on, as if it does now, become more ignorant than it already is, as if this is possible. The answer is of course no. It wouldn't make the slightest difference. It would not make the slightest difference if people were or were not told who smoked marijuana thirty years ago or slept with his neighbor's wife, or for that matter were or were not told what is going to happen in a week or a month by talk show sages who don't know what is going to happen in the next five minutes. We think we are being kept up to date when we get the news. What we are in fact getting is a kind of alternate reality, the journalistic equivalent of pulp fiction where "stories" are selected for their dramatic value, with plenty of red meat for the voyeurs and the bloodthirsty, shamelessly exploiting the grief and misery of real people to get their most "powerful" moments.

      As for the "news of the world," including the Middle East, this information will be served up by reporters and analysts who lack the talent, knowledge and understanding to be historians, scholars, political scientists or even novelists. Such being the standards of journalism, most will not even speak the languages of the countries they report from and comment on, like yourself in the case of Israel, so you can say that it will be a case of the blind leading the blind. Imagine an Arab or Israeli reporter, analyst or blogger without a word of English describing American or British life and thinking to Arab or Israeli readers who also don't understand a word of English. That is your profession.

    • 18 May 2017 at 9:19am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ XopherO
      It is actually you who have not responded to my points.

      I don’t know how many millions of police files are opened every year in Great Britain. You tell me how many of them the media are responsible for.

    • 18 May 2017 at 1:07pm
      XopherO says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Your arguments are getting even sillier and repetitive! Everyone I talked to in Israel spoke English, including the partners who were financing the project I was leading, wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs with a philanthropic bent who spoke at length about Israel - they loathed Likud and Netanyahu, but despaired of the Labour Party post-Rabin, with reason as it turned out. They even told me to avoid driving through the Orthodox area of Tel Aviv on the Sabbath because the car was likely to be stoned! I saw that Israeli Arabs had a raw deal and are second-class citizens(have you read Diary in the LRB 4 May), to get on even just a bit they need to speak Hebrew whereas Jews do not need to speak Arabic and the areas they live in have poor infrastructure and facilities; went through the unpleasant check points leading to the West Bank; saw the surrealism of the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But you are right, the Israeli press/TV ignores most of this, but Netanyahu still wants to gag it even more. And lets not even talk about the 'independence of the judiciary'.

    • 18 May 2017 at 1:44pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Well, when you go to China, make sure you find people who speak English and then you'll understand China too.

      There is no Orthodox area of Tel Aviv. You are confusing Tel Aviv with Jerusalem or maybe Bnei Berak. And how exactly did you "see" that Arabs were getting a raw deal? And don't you think that a little "unpleasantless" at the checkpoints is justified if it prevents barbaric Arab terrorists from entering Israel and blowing up women and children in buses and restaurants?

      You are welcome to your standards. Let us know when you work out how many successful criminal prosecutions journalists are responsible for out of the millions dealt with in the legal system.

    • 18 May 2017 at 2:13pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Fred Skolnik
      And by the way, since Israel is today pretty evenly divided politically and you only talked to people with anti-Likud views, or only choose to mention them, you were getting an unbalanced picture of Israeli thinking and perception, or are biased yourself, so what is the point of gratuitously telling us about stone throwers and the surreal Wailing Wall? And how would you know what the Press/TV ignores when you neither read it nor watch it, or if you happen to read Haaretz in English, surely you are aware that the exact opposite is the case.

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