Netanyahu’s appetite for a free lunch has been common knowledge in Israel since his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s. Then, he was twice investigated for fraud, though controversially charges were not brought in either case. Police discovered along the way that he and his wife, Sara, had hoarded many of the gifts he received during state visits. More than 100 were never recovered.
Netanyahu’s predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was similarly the subject of several different investigations, and is currently serving a jail term for fraud over his involvement in a massive real estate deal when mayor of Jerusalem. He was also convicted of receiving cash in envelopes from a U.S. businessman, Morris Talansky, in return for political favours.
The newspaper has been challenged by critics for representing nothing less than an indirect campaign contribution to Netanyahu. Political funding laws in Israel allow individuals and corporations to contribute only relatively small sums, and Israeli politicians do not enjoy the massive support that their U.S. counterparts do via Super PACs and other methods of political support.
That all changed in 2007 when the Adelson-founded Israel Hayom burst onto the scene, introducing the concept of a giveaway nationally distributed newspaper to the Israeli market by offering a similar product to Yedioth, but at no charge.
Israel Hayom’s financial history remains a closely guarded secret, but media experts believe Adelson has absorbed tens of millions of shekels in losses in order to provide a cheering section for Netanyahu, so much so that it has been nicknamed “Bibiton,” a fusion of Netanyahu’s name and the Hebrew word for newspaper.
In a wide-reaching investigation by Israel Police of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was revealed Sunday that a tape exists of a conversation in which Netanyahu and media tycoon Arnon Mozes – owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper – appear to be hammering out a deal that would benefit them both.
This was effectively a vendetta by Netanyahu and Adelson against Mozes for using his media empire, which once enjoyed near-monopoly status in Israel, to damage Netanyahu and support rival politicians. Yair Lapid, a former columnist at Yedioth, is today leader of the Yesh Atid party, a potential challenger to Netanyahu for prime minister. He has in the past received strong backing from his former paper.
Adelson and Netanyahu’s aim in establishing Israel Hayom in 2007 was not only to create a propaganda platform for Netanyahu. It was also intended to drive rival papers, especially Yedioth Ahronoth, out of business by forcing down their income from advertising revenue. U.S. businessman Adelson’s pockets are much deeper than those of Israeli businessman Mozes.
Adelson and his Israel Hayom newspaper are at the heart of Netanyahu’s current troubles. The tapes in Case 2000 are audio recordings of conversations between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the Israeli owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth media group, which includes the country’s largest paid-for newspaper. Mozes’ desperate need to save his business empire appears to have driven him into Netanyahu’s embrace.
That deal may have possibly involved shutting down parts – or even all – of the Israel Hayom newspaper, which is owned by Netanyahu’s political patron, the American-Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
The free daily Israel Hayom, founded 10 years ago, is now the biggest-circulation paper in Israel and is known locally as Bibi-ton, or Bibi’s newspaper, in reference to Netanyahu’s nickname. A recent investigation by Haaretz found that Adelson had sunk an astronomic sum into Israel Hayom – some $190 million in its first seven years alone – to keep it afloat.
Personifying this unhealthy external interference in Israeli politics is Sheldon Adelson, the U.S. casino magnate who is Netanyahu’s main patron. Adelson has done much more than channel donations to Netanyahu’s campaign coffers. He created a newspaper to get Netanyahu elected and keep him in office.
For decades, there had been only one dominant mainstream newspaper in Israel: Yedioth Ahronoth. Founded in 1939, and owned and controlled by the Mozes family since shortly after its founding, it’s had rivals when it comes to prestige and influence. But historically, its commercial domination of Israeli print media in both circulation and advertising sales has been undisputed and was only strengthened by its online arm, Ynet.
The Haaretz newspaper observed recently that this underground economy had become so big – with an annual turnover reaching as much $39 billion – Israel could find itself on the same list as Iran as “one of the leading state financiers of global terrorism”.