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Israel debates Sheldon Adelson’s media, political heritage

Following the death of Jewish American Sheldon Adelson, the Israeli right and left disagree about how he influenced Israel’s media, society.
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“If you don’t control a newspaper, you can’t really rule.” This was a mantra that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s media team heard incessantly from him after his first term as prime minister. Over the years, the message only got louder.

As Netanyahu became increasingly convinced that the left controlled the Israel media, he reached the inevitable conclusion that what was needed as a counterbalance was a powerful and influential media outlet on the right. Founding such an outlet became his meta-goal; in order to fulfill it, he worked relentlessly to win support and funding from a prominent right-wing tycoon.

It took him until 2007. Netanyahu was then head of the opposition, when a free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom (“Israel Today”), burst on the scene, sending shock waves through the Israeli media market. It was the result of an enormous investment by one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a man committed to sweeping change.

It’s been more than 13 years since Israel Hayom first burst on the scene. Adelson died Jan. 11 at the age of 87, leaving behind a controversial political and media legacy in Israel, as he did in the United States. Israel Hayom never met Netanyahu and Adelson’s expectations for it to become the country’s most influential newspaper, but it remains the most widely distributed. And it managed to shatter the dominance of Yediot Ahronot, a long-established, rival paper loathed by Netanyahu.

The death of Sheldon Adelson raises an old question: Was it because of the paper he founded and funded that Netanyahu was able to cling to power for so long? The fact that the paper’s life just about parallels Netanyahu’s time in office since he returned to power in 2009 makes this question all the more relevant.

Politicians and journalists on the left argue that the two phenomena are intrinsically connected. They also say the damage Adelson caused to Israeli politics and journalism cannot be overstated.

Rogel Alper, a journalist and publicist for Haaretz newspaper, said Adelson polluted local journalism with foreign interests, thereby causing harm to Israeli democracy. It was, Alper said, a major factor behind Netanyahu’s rise to power, but most of all, his ability to cling to it. In a piece he published Jan. 13, Alper wrote, “Although he didn’t live here, Adelson allowed himself to shape the political awareness of millions of Israelis through his newspaper Israel Hayom. He distributed the paper for free, because his deep pockets could easily absorb such a minor loss, considering his vast fortune. When competing with other papers, this gave him an unfair advantage. Israel Hayom is a political bribe that Adelson gave Netanyahu. It is not a newspaper. It is a ‘shofar’ [horn] trumpeting propaganda, with the sole purpose of keeping Netanyahu, the right and the ultra-Orthodox in power.”

In contrast, members of the right expressed gratitude for all Alderson did for them, saying he had increased pluralism in the Israeli media, which they said had been dominated by the left. They also said he rescued democracy from the media monopoly of the newspaper Yediot Ahronot and its powerful publisher, Arnon Mozes, who imposed a reign of terror on Israeli politicians.

Adelson also owned Makor Rishon, a paper identified with the settler movement. Its editor, Haggai Segal, tweeted, “The staff of Makor Rishon mourn the passing of Sheldon Adelson, an owner of the newspaper and lover of Israel. He was one of the greatest donors to the Zionist enterprise, and a man who did much to ensure pluralism in Hebrew journalism. May his memory be a blessing for us.”

Netanyahu also expressed deep sadness over Adelson’s death in an unusual statement in both Hebrew and English. The English version said, “Sara and I are heartbroken by the passing of Sheldon Adelson. He was a wonderful friend to us personally and an incredible champion of the Jewish people, the Jewish state, and the alliance between Israel and America." In a statement published in English in Israel Hayom, the prime minister also said, "He gave to Zionism, to the settlements, and to the state of Israel. … With his wife, Miri, he gave generously to many enterprises that save lives and brought Israel renown throughout the world." Miriam Adelson, 75, is the paper's publisher.

Netanyahu intentionally avoided noting Sheldon Adelson’s contribution to reshaping the Israeli media and bringing right-wing discourse into the mainstream. The connection between the prime minister and Israel Hayom, and by extension, his alleged involvement in the business side of the newspaper, as revealed in one of the indictments against him, could be seen as criminal. Netanyahu’s trial is only just beginning. As it proceeds, people will get a better glimpse at what actually happened all this time behind closed doors, as Sheldon Adelson threw his weight behind creating a right-wing media alternative and its political implications.

While we don’t yet have the full picture, it can be said that, in terms of results, Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson were able to shake up the old order. Three years after it was launched, Israel Hayom had already broken Mozes’ monopoly. Polls released in 2010 found that the free daily newspaper had greater exposure than Yediot Ahronot. For the first time in years, a rival paper had surpassed Yediot Ahronot as the most widely distributed newspaper in the country. This trend continued over the next few years, but despite its widespread distribution and its expansion to digital media platforms, including websites in Hebrew and English, the Israel Hayom brand of journalism never managed to win high regard. Its agenda was seen as tainted by political interests. This was not what Netanyahu had envisioned.

While Netanyahu himself began mocking Israel Hayom’s effectiveness in setting the national agenda, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Sheldon Adelson’s free newspaper influenced other media. It was responsible for the rise of right-wing commentators on TV and even other newspapers.

As Israel Hayom expanded its reach, public figures other than Netanyahu sought ways to get closer to it. These included Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina party, but also Yair Lapid of the center-left Yesh Atid. They were happy to give interviews to the paper, since it meant they could reach a larger audience.

Today it is clear to everyone that “the redhead,” as Netanyahu called Sheldon Adelson, never ceased to gain influence on the Israeli media scene. He threw all his money and power into the Israeli political and media arenas with the clear intention of having an impact on them. He was more than just a man with deep pockets, as his many critics tend to portray him. He was a right-wing ideologue who did not believe in Palestinian statehood or the two-state solution. He was convinced that Netanyahu was the right person to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. Most of all, he believed that he was the right man to protect and defend the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel through his vast donations but also by instigating change in the Israeli media.

It is now believed that Israel Hayom will continue to exist even after Sheldon Adelson’s death. His widow, a former Israeli, will likely continue her late husband’s political and media legacy.

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