As the contest for who will lead the nation takes shape, the classic right-wing charge of pervasive, hostile media bias was splashed in giant tabloid type across the front page of the daily Israel Hayom last Friday. The headline read: "Netanyahu: The Media is Campaigning to Bring the Left to Power." The Friday edition of an Israeli paper is the equivalent of a thick Sunday edition in America; print newspapers are still very popular in Israel, and Israel Hayom is one of the two most popular papers.
You might just sense a contradiction here: The most-read headline of the week in one of the country's most influential news sources carried Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's accusation that the media is deliberately trying to take power from him and give it to the left. The irony certainly wasn't intentional. The undeclared purpose of Israel Hayom is to promote Bibi Netanyahu. "Newspaper" in Hebrew is iton; Israel Hayom has gained the nickname Bibiton. A vast army of people wearing red overalls hand it out for free everyday, everywhere in Israel. For the newspaper's owner, American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, making money isn't the goal
Adelson's penchant for giving vast sums in hopes of buying victory for conservative candidates is all too well known in the United States. In 2012, according to the Center for Public Integrity, he and his wife donated $150 million to Republican efforts, $93 million of it to conservative super PACs, and reportedly invested $100 million in conservative presidential and senatorial candidates. His attitude toward elections could be summed up as "one dollar, one vote." Profligate as he is, though, in the U.S., he's only one of the mostly conservative mega-givers to which President Barack Obama's tech-driven mass fundraising efforts provided at least part of an answer the presidential campaign.
In Israel, on the other hand, Adelson's influence is uniquely pernicious.
Israel's campaign-funding laws are at the far pole from America's. "Israel adopted all the possible restrictions," says Hebrew University economist Momi Dahan, co-author of an Israel Democracy Institute study on election financing and corruption. Only individuals may contribute, and the maximum a person can give a particular candidate or party is about $600 in an election year. Anonymous donations are illegal. Corporations aren't people, and are barred from giving. So, for that matter, are unions and other organizations. And only Israeli citizens may make campaign donations. That rule makes sense. A small country is particularly vulnerable to attempts by wealthy foreigners to influence its elections. To make up for the restrictions, the state funds campaigns generously.
There's no word for super PAC in Hebrew. In 2000, however, the state comptroller—responsible for overseeing campaign finances—issued a ruling on campaign efforts by independent non-profits. An issue-oriented group, established with no connection to an election, is allowed to spend money on convincing citizens to vote in line with its goals. "A group like Peace Now, for instance, which is active all year round and conducts ongoing activities promoting peace" could call on the public "to vote for pro-peace candidates," says political scientist Menachem Hofnung, an expert on campaign financing. But donations to a group set up to support candidates or parties are illegal. In his ruling, Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg wrote that a balance must be found between freedom of expression and the principles of clean government and equality, including the equality of citizens in an election.
When Adelson established Israel Hayom in 2007, he made an end-run around those rules. It's a full-sized paper, aimed at matching other national dailies. But it's free. In Israel, the small advertising market can’t produce enough revenue to allow a profit-seeking publisher to forfeit income from readers. But Adelson has shown he's very willing dip into his own pockets to promote his agenda.
Since the newspaper is privately owned, it need not make its balance sheet public. In a 2011 deposition in a suit against Adelson in Israeli court, a former business partner stated, "It is no secret that the free paper Israel Hayom loses $3 million a month, and cannot be profitable." That number may have been contestable then, and may have changed since. But the principle that Israel Hayom isn't built to make money appears true to this day.
In circulation terms, though, Israel Hayom has done very well. It is now the most-read newspaper on weekdays, leaving the once-dominant Yediot Aharonot to slide to second place. On Fridays, Yediot's weekend edition is still ahead, but Israel Hayom is closing the gap. Newspapers around the world are struggling, and often failing, to stay afloat, with so many news sources available for free on the Internet. Adelson has doubled the jinx for Israeli newspapers: News is also handed out free on the street.
Owners of niche political publications have been known to accept reasonable losses as the price for personal prestige and promoting their perspectives. (Think The New Republic—until the current crisis.) But Israel Hayom isn't a niche magazine. And it is not simply a conservative paper. It's a Netanyahu paper, resented by the prime minister's rivals on the right as much as it is by opponents on the left.
The Netanyahu slant is often glaring. Last week, Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, gave a speech with the unsurprising message that the Obama administration would continue to seek a two-state solution. That morphed into the Israel Hayom's tabloid front-page headline: "Warning: In the Two Years Left, Obama Will Continue to Promote Negotiations." Above that was an line of smaller headline type saying that the ambassador's "Sharp Speech Raises the Question: Is This Intervention in the Election?" In Yediot and the high-brow Haaretz, Shapiro's speech wasn't a story, much less a threat against Israel and the prime minister.
On Friday, when Adelson's paper trumpeted Netanyahu's the-media-is-trying-to-depose-me riff, Yediot and Haaretz devoted their top headlines to the new shape of the campaign. With the agreement between Labor leader Isaac Herzog and centrist Tzipi Livni to run on a joint ticket, a two-way race for prime minister had shaped up. That's a major change from the 2013 election, when the center and left were too divided to have a chance at forming the government, leaving Netanyahu as virtually the only candidate for prime minister. Now there's a race. Yediot's Friday front page included a poll showing that the Labor-Livni block would get one seat more in parliament than Netanyahu's Likud Party.
In that race, though, Netanyahu enjoys the advantage of having a major newspaper in his camp that portrays the world as seen from his office: a world in which Israel is surrounded by enemies, including the president of the United States; in which peace negotiations are aimed at destroying Israel; in which Israel's left is aligned with all the hostile forces, and even rightists who oppose Netanyahu want to carry out a coup through the instrument of elections. Right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman, who joined forces with Netanyahu in the last election, is running separately this time. On Sunday, he said his party was willing to join whatever government is formed after the election. On Monday the front of Israel Hayom shouted: "Anger on the Right: Lieberman Will Bring a Government of the Left.'" Et tu, Avigdor?
Formally, Adelson hasn't broken the letter of the campaign financing rules. The spirit of the rules in another matter. "De facto," economist Dahan says, "the existence of a newspaper like Israel Hayom egregiously violates the law, because he's actually is providing a candidate with nearly unlimited resources."
No other zillionaire wields this influence. And so far, no party on the left side of the Israeli spectrum has demonstrated the know-how at melding technology and organizing methods that could begin to balance the scales.
Adelson's investment in Netanyahu provokes disgust, but it should not provoke despair. In contrast to 2013, Netanyahu is not running virtually unopposed for prime minister. Public fatigue with Netanyahu is evident. And let's remember that in 2012 in America, Adelson poured a large part of his money into super PACs supporting 10 candidates. All went down to defeat.