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.