Is Israel’s Channel 13 being neutered for Netanyahu’s sake? It’s not that simple
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Is Israel’s Channel 13 being neutered for Netanyahu’s sake? It’s not that simple

Second-biggest news station just fired some of the country’s most respected journalists. While some see meddling by politicians, the real motive may be larger — and more desperate

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Screenshot of a Channel 13 ad for its election coverage in March 2019. (YouTube screen capture)
Screenshot of a Channel 13 ad for its election coverage in March 2019. (YouTube screen capture)

Channel 13, Israel’s second-most watched television network, fired 42 employees earlier this month, including prominent journalists, technical staff and editors, in a step that set off a firestorm of criticism across Israel’s rowdy media landscape.

Some blamed the firings on political intervention. Israel Twito, who is both the CEO and editor in chief of the news division and had the final word on who would be fired, has in the past served as a spokesman to Likud cabinet ministers Israel Katz and Gideon Sa’ar.

One news editor let go this month, Nir Becher, accused Twito of the “targeted liquidation of reporters… in the spirit of Balfour,” a reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose official residence is on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

Investigative reporter Avi Amit, during his final broadcast on July 11 — a story the explored the runaway costs of the new prime minister’s plane Israel had purchased at Netanyahu’s demand — used the final minute of his last report to tell viewers that “someone high up, and we don’t know just how high up, thinks there’s no place for my investigations on the Channel 13 screen.”

The story was noticed by some international media, mainly because of the prominence of some of those being let go, especially the channel’s well-connected diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders even issued a bulletin explaining that the Channel 13 firings came “after many attempts by the Israeli government to influence its editorial policies,” and the removal of “journalists critical of Prime Minister Benyamin (sic) Netanyahu” was a threat to “investigative journalism and pluralism.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Northern Command base in Safed, July 28, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

It was all part of Netanyahu’s meddling in the media, which he often accuses of conspiring to topple him, or so the narrative went.

There’s just one problem with the story: it doesn’t appear to be true.

It’s true that prominent and respected journalists and critics of Netanyahu, like Barak Ravid and Nir Becher, were let go, as well as some of the network’s respected investigative reporters. But many right-leaning journalists were dismissed alongside them, such as Knesset reporter Akiva Novick.

Then, too, some of the journalists most critical of Netanyahu and most often targeted by him for vilification, such as political commentator Raviv Drucker and legal correspondent Aviad Glickman, survived the purge. It was Glickman who published many of the transcripts from police questioning in Netanyahu’s corruption probes that so embarrassed and infuriated the prime minister in recent years.

The Times of Israel went in search of an explanation for a dramatic shakeup that in some sense reshaped Israel’s news landscape but that seemed to follow no clear pattern. None of those spoken to, including some who were fired last month as well as individuals still employed at Channel 13, agreed to speak on the record. All acknowledged that no simple narrative of a pro-Netanyahu line really fit the facts. The story that emerged instead was of a network in dire financial shape searching for new audiences and financial stability by plumbing the depths of — some said “instigating” — a deeper culture war, the old Ashkenazi-Mizrahi gap that shapes and intensifies the left-right divide.

Cash-strapped

Channel 13 news and its parent company Reshet 13 are in dire financial straits. The network’s ratings have consistently hovered at about half those of rival Channel 12, and the company, until last year’s restructuring of the broadcast news industry dubbed Channel 10, has been in the red for years. Reshet, which has the license to operate the channel, is estimated by industry media reports to be carrying debts exceeding NIS 100 million (about $30 million).

Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud with Channel 13’s Barak Ravid, February 2019 (Twitter screenshot)

When the company told a labor court earlier this year that it would run out of money and be unable to pay May salaries, its controlling shareholder, American-British billionaire Len Blavatnik, sent some 10 million shekels to cover operating expenses.

That’s been the story since Blavatnik first showed an interest in buying Channel 10 in 2015. The channel chronically loses money, and its owners must regularly inject cash to keep it afloat.

But, say current and former employees, the owner seems to have lost interest in the money-losing scheme. New injections of cash can no longer be relied upon. (Attempts to reach Blavatnik for comment were not immediately successful.)

And that meant that a company that had grown used to chronically overspending suddenly had to find ways to slash its expenditures. The drop in ad and other revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic only worsened the crisis.

Reshet announced in the spring it would have to fire over 100 employees from the news division, or about one-third of its staff.

The journalists’ union protested the move in May with threats of a strike. As mutual threats and recriminations escalated, each side began a de facto boycott of the other, with news division reporters refusing to participate in non-news Reshet programming, and Reshet management cutting reporters out of its morning talk shows and other programs.

Len Blavatnik, head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation (Courtesy)

The fight came to a head on May 24, at the start of the Netanyahu corruption trial. That morning was expected to draw unprecedented ratings as a serving Israeli prime minister made history by standing up in a courtroom and hearing his charges read aloud.

Fearing a journalists’ strike at that moment of soaring ratings, Reshet announced ahead of time it would not allow its news division to cover the trial.

Reshet CEO Avi Ben Tal asked the Ynet news site, which he once ran and which operates a small streaming video service, to run the channel’s broadcast from the trial.

Three of the news division’s reporters petitioned the High Court of Justice against the move, arguing Reshet was obligated under the rules of its government license to allow the news division to cover breaking events.

When the High Court asked Reshet to respond to the petition, both sides seemed to draw back from the precipice. The union promised not to strike or otherwise protest during the trial broadcast, and Reshet allowed its reporters to cover the event.

It was a strange incident that shed light on the level of distrust between the sides.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) with attorneys Micha Fettman (L) and Amit Hadad inside the courtroom as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020 (Ronen Zvulun/ Pool Photo via AP)

The moment passed, but the tension and the underlying financial crisis didn’t.

Three weeks later, as management pushed ahead with its plans to fire 42 employees — fewer than the 100 or so it had threatened a few weeks earlier, but still a sizable part of the roughly 300-strong workforce — technical staff staged a surprise walkout in the middle of the June 14 evening news broadcast, cutting the broadcast short.

It was in that bitter context that some reporters — and some media outlets, like the left-wing Haaretz, whose reports on the firings were linked three times in the Reporters Without Borders bulletin — began alleging that a nefarious political hand was operating behind the scenes.

Blavatnik was known to be close to Netanyahu, they said. (And, indeed, Netanyahu had urged Blavatnik to buy the channel in the first place and reportedly had once asked him to transform it into a right-wing outlet like America’s Fox News.)

It was after that long-running fight over the firings that Nir Becher, the respected former editor of Haaretz’s weekend edition and until this month the editor of Channel 13’s Saturday news broadcast, took to social media on July 13 to openly accuse his now-former boss Twito of doing the bidding of Netanyahu.

Twito, Becher noted, was a former media adviser to Likud ministers Katz and Sa’ar. He claimed Twito had once pressured him to have Katz on a broadcast, and that he later complained when Becher led a weekend broadcast with a commemoration ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar during a Knesset plenary session debate on MK Haim Katz’s request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution, February 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The company’s ‘efficiency plan’ is a code word for the targeted liquidation of reporters that the CEO doesn’t like,” Becher charged in mid-July. “An independent channel that in the past produced hard-hitting investigations and combative journalism — is now a domesticated kitten.”

Twito responded the following day, July 14, in a letter to employees.

He denied any political motive, calling the criticism “personal slander,” “crazy claims” and “false and hurtful.”

He was concerned only with transforming the channel “into an organization that doesn’t need financial resuscitation each year,” he wrote.

He noted, too, that Channel 13 had broken many of the Netanyahu corruption allegation stories of the past year — as well as the claims pushed by Netanyahu’s camp against Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s alleged role in the ten-year-old Harpaz scandal and reports that examined the collapse of the Benny Gantz-led company Fifth Dimension.

“We always stick to the facts,” Twito insisted. “It’s true I have my own way. There’s no doubt I have my content preferences and editorial line. It’s also true that I think that balance and diversity of opinions and perspectives is an important thing. Preserving journalistic independence isn’t even a question in the News Company [of Channel 13]. It was always there, and always will be.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a debate on Likud MK Haim Katz’s request for immunity at the Knesset House Committee, January 30, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finding its voice

The shakeup at Channel 13 wasn’t ordered by Netanyahu, say current and former employees, but it was nevertheless indirectly caused by him, or at least by the fallout from his corruption trial.

Blavatnik, said one former employee, “is sick of the channel. After [cases] 2000 and 4000 [the corruption probes into Netanyahu’s dealings with media outlet owners], owning a television channel makes you a leper to Israeli politicians. Suddenly no minister will meet with you. Owning a media outlet used to be useful. Now the politicians are too scared to meet owners.”

Some staffers decided to do some journalistic snooping to try to determine whether Blavatnik played a role in the firings, but could find no evidence that he did.

“He never interfered,” said another ex-employee. “He’s just sick of sending money. He didn’t even say, ‘cut this or that.’ It just doesn’t interest him anymore.”

What, then, drove the decision of whom to fire? The question is especially perplexing given the reporters let go, from Ravid, famously one of the most energetic “scoopers” of Israeli journalism, to Amit and his investigations, to iconic weatherman Danny Rup.

One signal might be found in Twito’s July 14 letter.

“On a personal level, the attacks don’t frighten me,” he wrote to his employees after Becher and others accused him of doing Netanyahu’s bidding. “I’ve never bowed before money or power, and I don’t intend to hang my head before the guild that’s trying to instruct me on how to manage the journalistic operation…. This storm, too, shall pass.”

The bulk of Twito’s career was spent at Channel 13’s predecessor Channel 10, where he rose over the course of 12 years from a junior aide to a deputy editor. He left journalism and Channel 10 behind in 2015 for a job in the business world, but returned in 2019 amid the reorganization that created Reshet 13.

He’s been part and parcel of the channel for years. Which “guild,” then, is he talking about, and declares himself unwilling to “hang my head” before?

Indeed, Twito knows the channel so well, knows its challenges and history, and knows it has always, since its very founding in 2002, lagged behind powerhouse competitor Channel 12, that he seems to have decided to pivot the channel in a dramatic new direction.

Current and former employees describe Twito as the unofficial chieftain of an informal group within the news division that wants it to seek out new audiences, to stop trying to emulate Channel 12 but instead claim ownership of the demographics in Israeli society that are not already flocking to the competition.

“They’re a group that says the channel needs to be more amami [popular and down-to-earth], more sensitive, less ‘leftist’ in the sense of elitist and bitter,” said one employee. “They’re not necessarily for or against Bibi [Netanyahu], but they want the channel to be more connected to the people.”

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem on July 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Or as Israelis understand such terms: Mizrahi.

“If the news broadcast is less Ashkenazi, less liberal, less secular, he thinks that will bring viewers who don’t watch the channel today,” said another employee.

Many of the key shifts in the channel’s tone and content over the past year suddenly seem to fit the pattern, an attempt to create a mass-media space for the more traditionally minded and Mizrahi-oriented half of Israeli Jewish society.

Drucker and Glickman, the outspoken Netanyahu critics, were kept on (the theory goes) because they are interesting to the sought-after demographic, who are following the Netanyahu trial closely. Meanwhile, Ravid’s interviews with Mike Pompeo or Bahraini foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa may be journalistic achievements, but are apparently deemed unlikely to draw the attention of the groups Twito seems to be counting on to turn the channel around.

Another vital element that has come to represent the direction for many: Avishai Ben Haim.

Ben Haim is formally the channel’s religious affairs analyst. He holds a doctorate from Hebrew University in Haredi Sephardi religious thought (specifically Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s views on the kabbalistic mystical tradition) and has spent the better part of the past two decades covering Jewish religious movements and spiritual leaders in major Israeli media outlets.

Channel 13 journalist Avishai Ben Haim in a screen capture from his documentary “Second Israel.”

And over the past year, thanks in large part to Twito, he has become a central voice in the Israeli discourse.

He produced intensively promoted documentary series on Channel 13 that posited the existence of a “First Israel” made up of a shrinking but jealous Ashkenazi elite and a “Second Israel” of traditionalist Mizrahim who see Netanyahu, though he hails from the most privileged summits of the former, as their champion.

This past week alone, Ben-Haim tweeted the claim that the anti-Netanyahu protests of the past week, and the 2011 cost-of-living protests before them, were an “invention” made possible by First Israel’s “hegemony” in the media; that the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was an “injustice” perpetrated against the “enchanting Mizrahi development town” of the Gush Katif settlements by a “First Israel responding violently to its loss of hegemony in 1977” with Menachem Begin’s first election win; and even, on July 23, that Mizrahim should “remain steadfast for our people and our prime minister” amid the protests against him, for he is “the symbol, just the excuse, the reflection, but actually the final barricade” that First Israel must defeat to reclaim its hegemony.

His newest series is titled “the new Moroccans.”

Ben Haim’s journalism and advocacy, which have drawn as much criticism from Mizrahi writers as from Ashkenazi ones, are worth examining as part of a growing assertiveness of Mizrahi voices in Israeli Jewish society. But the point here is a narrower one: his growing centrality to Channel 13’s broadcasts and public face testify to what some of the most experienced journalists and managers in Israeli television believe the Israeli public wants to hear.

The run of three election-night broadcasts between April 2019 and March 2020 showcase the shift. An election-night broadcast is among the most highly watched moments on Israeli television, and the journalists granted screen time as panelists as the results come in are almost by definition key figures and symbols of any news outlet. In the first two elections in April and September of last year, Ravid was a panelist. By the March race he was replaced by Ben Haim.

Channel 13 news has stumbled from year to year, reliant on the largesse of benefactor-owners. Now it’s evidently looking for a new story, and shifting in ways meant to rally new audiences to its banner.

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