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Op-edThe toxic raging of a state-funded 'political analyst'

Vitriolic Bardugo turns Army Radio into Netanyahu weapon against the rule of law

The prime minister’s mouthpiece unloads scorn and conspiracy theories on the nation daily, but for the past year has been dangerously obsessing over the attorney general

Avner Hofstein

Chief investigative reporter for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel's sister Hebrew website

Jacob Bardugo sticks his tongue out in jest toward photographers while awaiting a court hearing in his libel case brought by former Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz, on May 25, 2020 (Reuven Kastro, courtesy of Walla)
Jacob Bardugo sticks his tongue out in jest toward photographers while awaiting a court hearing in his libel case brought by former Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz, on May 25, 2020 (Reuven Kastro, courtesy of Walla)

Army Radio – Galei Zahal – was for years considered Israel’s leading radio station. Managed by the IDF and funded by the taxpayer, it was no government or military propaganda outfit, but a credible outlet that upheld both journalistic freedom and the IDF’s imperative to avoid being dragged into the muddy waters of partisan politics.

Nowadays, though, its output and reputation are dominated by one Jacob Bardugo, a “political analyst” who propagandizes nonstop for Benjamin Netanyahu, eviscerating the prime minister’s critics and rivals more ferociously and with infinitely more airtime than any other of Netanyahu’s supporters or even, indeed, the prime minister himself.

So far, so utterly inappropriate for a publicly funded media outlet that bears the IDF’s brand. But for the past year, Bardugo has sharpened his focus.

Any and all of Netanyahu’s rivals and detractors remain fair game, but his principal target – the obsessive focus of Bardugo’s vicious barbs – is not a politician or a rival, but rather the top legal officer of the State of Israel, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, the public servant who in January 2020 filed a criminal indictment against Netanyahu.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The dominant voice of a state-owned, publicly funded national radio station, in other words, is battering away relentlessly at the head of Israel’s law enforcement establishment.

Businessman, political activist, mouthpiece

Bardugo, 55, is a rare phenomenon even within the Israeli press arena of today, in which politics, special interests and journalism seem to mix more than ever before. During the 1980s and 1990s, he was a young Likud activist, mainly known as a close adviser to Likud’s then foreign secretary David Levy and to Austrian casino mogul Martin Schlaff.

During Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister, 1996-1999, Bardugo became close to Netanyahu and was appointed head of the National Lottery company – a powerful position at the intersection of money and politics. Since then, Bardugo has mixed business with advocacy, remaining a loyal Likud member and fervent supporter of its leader.

During Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister, Bardugo was appointed head of the National Lottery company – a powerful position at the intersection of money and politics

Some five years ago, his career took a surprise turn as he ventured into journalism.

Yaron Deckel, the then-commander and editor-in-chief of Army Radio, offered Bardugo the position of chief political analyst and co-anchor of the station’s popular evening news show.

Former Army Radio Commander Yaron Deckel attends an Economy Committee meeting at the Knesset on January 31, 2017. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

His elevation triggered outrage in the newsroom. Veterans such as Rino Zror and Razi Barkai, presenters who are plainly not in the pro-Netanyahu camp, denounced Bardugo as a Likud government mouthpiece. Dismay deepened at the station when details of Bardugo’s bizarre terms of employment emerged; for a long time, he received no salary and was also not required to sign a standard conflict of interest disclosure.

Deckel insisted there was nothing untoward about Bardugo’s appointment, calling him the country’s “best political analyst.” But Netanyahu subsequently acknowledged during police questioning in the corruption probes against him that he had struck a deal with Deckel to change Army Radio’s character and overhaul its news division.

Netanyahu subsequently acknowledged during police questioning that he struck a deal with Deckel to change Army Radio’s character and overhaul its news division

In a pending libel lawsuit against Bardugo brought by Netanyahu’s former political adviser Nir Hefetz, who has turned state witness against the prime minister, Hefetz claims a deal was made between Netanyahu and Deckel to place Bardugo in a position of influence at the station.

Netanyahu’s efforts to corral Hebrew media outlets are central to the allegations against him in two of the three cases for which he is currently on trial: Case 2000, which revolves around a never-implemented deal with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper and owner of its most-read Hebrew website; and Case 4000, in which the prime minister allegedly arranged financial benefits to the then owner of Walla news, then Israel’s second-biggest news website.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives a hearing in his corruption case at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

In both cases, the alleged goal – allegedly achieved at Walla – was to give the prime minister influence over content and ensure favorable coverage, at the inevitable expense of public interest and media independence.

But in some ways, the case of Army Radio and Bardugo appears still worse: No businessman is directly benefiting from the arrangement by which a Netanyahu cheerleader enjoys extraordinary prominence (unlike Yedioth’s publisher Arnon Mozes, as alleged in Case 2000, or Walla and Bezeq telecommunications chief Shaul Elovich, as alleged in Case 4000).

But, of course, Army Radio is a public station, financed by the taxpayer. Bardugo is basically using public funds to transform a public service into a Netanyahu mouthpiece, a propaganda machine — and, for the past year, to challenge the legitimacy of the head of Israeli law enforcement.

Army Radio is a public station, financed by the taxpayer. Bardugo is basically using public funds to transform a public service into a Netanyahu mouthpiece, a propaganda machine

A Twitter onslaught against the attorney general

Bardugo’s obsessive campaign against Attorney General Mandelblit extends beyond his weekday early-evening 90-minute news show on Army Radio. Having asserted himself over the radio airwaves, Bardugo now also writes op-ed columns for Israel Hayom, Israel’s highest circulated free newspaper, founded by Sheldon and Miriam Adelson over a decade ago in order to promote and support Netanyahu’s agenda.

Radio pundit Jacob Bardugo taking shots at Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit (Illustration: Avi Katz)

Additionally, Bardugo’s media prominence has enabled him to build a large presence on Twitter, with 30,000 followers – a respectable number in Israeli terms, especially since he only began tweeting in earnest a little over a year ago, having previously used his account almost entirely to retweet Army Radio’s promos for his shows.

Much of what Bardugo says on his radio show and writes in his op-eds, he now also hammers home on his Twitter page. And since February 2020, he has been tweeting incessantly against Mandelblit — holding him to blame for blunders and screwups by the government, and, most damagingly, asserting that the attorney general has framed Netanyahu in the corruption cases, trumping up the charges against the prime minister.

The timing is no coincidence: Mandelblit filed the charges against Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court on January 28, 2020. Bardugo began tweeting within days, and hasn’t stopped since.

Of the 803 tweets he published in the ensuing 12 months, by my count, 466 were about Mandelblit. Many of them end with a call for Mandelblit to resign.

“Mandelblit has no checks and balances in his attacks against Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Bardugo tweeted on August 20. “He must resign immediately.”

“Mandelblit, you have no authority,” he tweeted on September 29. “You must resign, and the sooner the better. You are entirely unfit to examine whether or not the prime minister has any conflict of interests when there are audio recordings of yourself that you hide deep in your safe. Shame on you.”

“Mandelblit,” he tweeted again that same day, “you requested the court to hold daily hearings in the prime minister’s case. Why don’t you just decide that Netanyahu has already been convicted and we’ll waive the whole process of seeking the truth in court. You are not worthy to hold the office of attorney general. Shame on you.”

“Mandelblit,” Bardugo tweeted on November 5, “the fortress at Salah al-Din [the address of the Justice Ministry] is trembling. There is apparently a big threat of audio recordings exposed with you on them. The hysteria is in full sway…”

View of the Ministry of Justice and the office of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Salah al-Din street in Jerusalem, March 20, 2018. (Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Mandelblit makes sure he does not leave any fingerprints in order to allow him to make a stand based on his personal political needs,” he tweeted on January 18 this year. “This is how he handled the ‘permit’ to open an investigation against the prime minister. Who believes him?”

A day later, Bardugo continued: “Mandelblit decries in the government meetings that there is incitement against him. Oh well, we’re used to that whining.”

And when Netanyahu’s trial resumed on February 8, Bardugo tweeted: “Mandelblit couldn’t sleep last night from all the excitement. It’s not every day that he shows up for court. Enjoy the limelight today. The road is long, but the truth will eventually be revealed.”

The listeners are turning away

Army Radio is a media anomaly. It began broadcasting in 1950 as an IDF information service, but various legislative changes over the years established it as a national broadcasting service.

It remains part of the IDF and is budgeted as part of the Defense Ministry, but its content is not under army oversight. And while by law, the Israeli Broadcasting Authority is supposed to oversee the station’s broadcasts, in practice civilian oversight of an army unit proved impossible and no regulatory body supervises its output.

A soldier-reporter for Israel’s Army Radio. November 11, 2019. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The station has long been a vexed issue for IDF chiefs of staff and defense ministers. For the past 40 years, many have sought to remove it from the army altogether and make it a public, civilian outlet.

Since that hasn’t yet happened, the station’s integrity and capacity to resist attempts by politicians or indeed IDF officers to intervene in its content is wholly dependent on the Army Radio commander/editor-in-chief — sometimes an officer, sometimes a civilian with a military background; appointed by the IDF chief of staff; always a he. And for many years, those who held this position were able to resist outside pressure and maintain journalistic freedom.

Yaron Deckel’s tenure is perceived to have marked the breaching of this fence, while the current chief, Shimon Elkabetz, has made no effort to mend it.

Yaron Deckel’s tenure is perceived to have marked the breaching of this fence, while the current chief, Shimon Elkabetz, has made no effort to mend it

Top journalists have been complaining to Elkabetz about Bardugo for months, but commander/editor Elkabetz won’t or can’t act. “He behaves as if he is being silenced or squeezed from above,” according to a seasoned Army Radio journalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Army Radio Commander Shimon Elkabetz attends a conference in Netanya, November 22, 2018. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Bardugo has his fanbase, but the station’s ratings have actually been in decline for the past two years. Some Army Radio veterans blame what they call “Bardugoism” for damaging the station’s brand.

“It would be a mistake to think the problem applies only when Bardugo is actually on air,” says a senior journalist at the station. “He is an extremist and therefore projects on our station as a whole. Because of him, our listeners feel that the tone of the station has changed drastically, becoming a very spiteful and irritating extreme right. That is bothering them. And Bardugo is not an intellectual right-wing ideologue who drives discussion, but a toxic one. And so, the listeners turn away. And they won’t come back.”

It would be a mistake to think the problem applies only when Bardugo is actually on air. He is an extremist and therefore projects on our station as a whole

Several politicians have been refusing to give interviews to the evening news show as long as Bardugo is hosting it. One of these is Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the minister responsible for the Army Radio station: it is his ministry’s budget that covers its operations, his ministry’s funding that allows Bardugo to spew bile every weekday from 5 p.m.

Gantz could have done something about the deteriorating situation at the station, but he hesitated. And when he finally did make a move – announcing last month that he was ready to either have the station removed from the IDF aegis or shut down altogether – he was told he did not have the legal authority to do so, since parliament has dissolved, the government is transitional, and Israel is again in election mode.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi in Jerusalem on July 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Irony of ironies, the official who intervened, the public servant who upheld the law and stopped Gantz from shutting down Army Radio — and who thus ensured that Jacob Bardugo continues to spout his daily vitriol — was none other than Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

Full disclosure: Avner Hofstein worked as head of the investigative reporting desk for Army Radio from 2015-2017. He was fired by then station commander Yaron Deckel, with court documents later revealing this was done at the behest of Netanyahu’s media advisor-turned state witness, Nir Hefetz. Hofstein settled a wrongful termination lawsuit against Army Radio in 2020, having been awarded damages in the sum of NIS 83,000.

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