Is Israel Hayom losing that loving feeling for Netanyahu?
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Is Israel Hayom losing that loving feeling for Netanyahu?

For years, the free daily backed the PM, no matter what. It hasn't abandoned him, but it's giving him less coverage - and reporting prominently on a key rival

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson (L) meets with Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony at the Congress Hall in Jerusalem, August 12, 2007. (Flash90)
US billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson (L) meets with Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony at the Congress Hall in Jerusalem, August 12, 2007. (Flash90)

Last Friday, Israel Hayom, the country’s most widely read daily newspaper, reported on its front page about a minister’s plan to pass a law requiring the nigh-impossible support of two-thirds of the Knesset before Jerusalem could be divided in the framework of any peace deal with the Palestinians. The headline, in big, bold letters, was accompanied by a photo of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party, who is behind the initiative.

Sounds fairly mundane? Well, for any other newspaper, giving prominent coverage to high-profile legislation would indeed be unremarkable. But the fact that the headline was in Israel Hayom was taken by some media observers to signify a revolution in the country’s journalistic landscape, the potential repercussions of which might dramatically impact public opinion.

Israel Hayom, a freebie newspaper backed by US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has for years been staunchly loyal to Benjamin Netanyahu. Its unfailing support of the prime minister has been characterized by the playing down of his failures, the hyping of his achievements, and the lashing of his critics. Furthermore, it has been persistently disinclined to give effusive press to his domestic political rivals. All of this has earned the paper the epithet “Bibiton” — a portmanteau of Netanyahu’s nickname, Bibi, and the Hebrew word for newspaper, iton. In news-obsessed Israel, the paper’s influence may have played a not-insignificant role in the election victories of the longest-serving prime minister since David Ben-Gurion.

But media analysts have recently identified a certain cooling in the paper’s support for Netanyahu and his family. And last Friday’s headline championing a bill proposed by one of the prime minister’s key competitors for the right-wing vote was seen by some as the clearest indication of the shift to date.

A report on the front page of the June 16 edition of Israel Hayom describes a legislative initiative by Education Minister Naftali Bennett (screen capture)
A report on the front page of the June 16 edition of Israel Hayom describes a legislative initiative by Education Minister Naftali Bennett (screen capture)

“For years, Israel Hayom was a paper that exclusively served Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, and later also his son Yair. It also used to support politicians who were his allies, and started attacking them once they were no longer his allies. Any articles slightly critical of him were buried deep inside the paper,” said Oren Persico, a journalist and media critic for The 7th Eye, an independent media watchdog.

“Israel Hayom was never an ideological newspaper like [the right-wing] Makor Rishon or [the left-wing] Haaretz. It was a paper advancing the interests of one particular family,” Persico went on. “That changed on Friday, when they made Bennett’s proposal the main headline and added his photo. I don’t remember seeing anything like that in the decade that this paper exists.”

Another indication of a possible rift between the paper and the prime minister is the fact, documented by several analysts, that he and his wife have gotten much less coverage in recent months. Photos of Sara Netanyahu, which used to be ubiquitous in the paper, have become rarer.

One reasons for the change might be that Netanyahu is falling out of the good graces of Adelson, the Las Vegas-based gambling magnate and philanthropist. The two men have been friends for years, but a sign of trouble was noted by Israeli observers in the fall of 2016, when Adelson, atypically, did not attend Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations in New York.

‘Different winds are currently blowing at Israel Hayom. The new image the newspaper would like to present is that of one having an ideological standpoint’

A few months later, reports surfaced about a secret meeting Netanyahu conducted with Noni Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling daily. Known for its consistently negative coverage of the prime minister, it is Israel Hayom’s main competitor. According to segments of their discussion leaked to Channel 2, the prime minister considered striking a deal with Mozes that would have seen Yedioth tone down its criticism of Netanyahu in exchange for the prime minister furthering legislation or other measures that would hobble the circulation of Israel Hayom.

Netanyahu said he would need to consult with Adelson, according to the leaked transcript, which also showed the prime minister using a seemingly disrespectful nickname for his long-term benefactor. “I want to talk to the gingy,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying, using a term often used in Israel as a nickname for redheads.

In May, the billionaire testified in the case to the Police Lahav 433 serious crimes unit in Lod. (Adelson gave evidence as a witness and is not suspected of any wrongdoing.)

A man passes out the free newspaper Israel Hayom to passerbys on Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem. January 4, 2011. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
A man gives out the free newspaper Israel Hayom to passersby on Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

In late April, the paper’s veteran editor-in-chief, Amos Regev, was replaced by the paper’s foreign editor, Boaz Bismuth, who is said to be close to Adelson. Under Bismuth, the paper’s ostensible reorientation has further gained momentum, culminating in Friday’s splash featuring of Bennett’s bill.

Media analyst David Wertheimer described a “dramatic drop” in coverage of the Netanyahus since the new editor’s arrival. “It’s a trend that began a few months ago but has accelerated since Boaz Bismuth took office,” he wrote in the Walla news site’s Branja section, which focuses on the Hebrew press and which he edits.

Wertheimer cited a study showing that, under Bismuth, the prime minister’s name appeared 190 times between April 30 and June 19, compared to 542 mentions over the same period last year. Meanwhile, the number of appearances of Sara Netanyahu’s name dropped 90 percent, according to the study.

A different study, conducted by media critic Aviv Hurvitz, came to similar conclusions.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem's Old City, May 28, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 28, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Hayom, which on weekends has a circulation of about 450,000, is trying to get rid of its reputation as a newspaper subservient to the Netanyahu family, media analyst Nati Tucker posited this week.

“New winds are blowing at Israel Hayom. The new image the newspaper would like to present of itself is that of one having an ideological standpoint,” he wrote in The Marker business daily. From now on, the paper wants to be seen as center-right, representing political views ranging from Bennett on the hard right to Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party can be seen as centrist or right of center, according to Tucker.

Both Bennett and Lapid have met with Adelson. Bennett, the leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home, appears to be ideologically close to Adelson, who is known for his ultra-hawkish views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bennett is also a direct rival of Netanyahu for the right-wing, pro-settlement vote.

Does that mean the country’s most-read paper no longer supports Netanyahu? No. There are even those who speculate that the positive coverage of Bennett’s Jerusalem initiative actually serves the prime minister, in that it allows him to claim Israel Hayom no longer solely supports him. “Some think that it’s a very sophisticated scheme intended to protect Bibi,” said Persico, of The 7th Eye.

Whatever the merits of such elaborate theories, the “Bibiton” is plainly not abandoning the prime minister.

“It’s not a total turnaround, merely a change to be somewhat more neutral,” Persico stressed. The current trend notwithstanding, the paper still espouses views mostly in line with those of the prime minister, he noted. “It’s not like they’ve become an anti-Bibi paper overnight, God forbid.”

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