JERUSALEM (JTA) — Should a billionaire tycoon who lives abroad be entitled to use his money to influence Israeli political life?
This question came to the fore in early December when a group of Knesset members moved to bar American Jewish casino mogul Sheldon Adelson from owning a free Israeli daily newspaper that supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Knesset bill, which is being promoted by a collection of interested parties ranging from owners of competing newspapers to rival politicians, stipulates that, as is the case with the electronic media in Israel, only Israeli citizens or residents should be eligible for licenses to own Hebrew-language newspapers in Israel.
"Imagine if a Saudi businessman were to own a newspaper in Israel," Kadima legislator Yoel Hasson declared somewhat disingenuously, since the bill clearly was directed at Adelson.
It’s far from clear that the anti-Adelson campaign will succeed even if the bill is passed. Adelson easily could appoint a straw-man owner, or even hand over the paper to his wife Miriam, who is Israeli-born.
The arguments for and against, however, go far beyond the Adelsons, and touch on the very essence of democracy and free speech in Israel.
The newspaper, Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today), was launched two and half years ago, and has been so uncritical in its support of Netanyahu that it has been dubbed the “Bibiton,” a play on Netanyahu’s nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper, iton.
Its opponents argue strongly against it. First, they say it provides a venue for foreign money to shape the Israeli agenda. Additionally, they complain, Yisrael Hayom is nothing more than a propaganda sheet for Netanyahu posing as a genuine newspaper and taking in masses of gullible readers. For Netanyahu to buy that kind of publicity would have cost millions; the free newspaper with nationwide distribution could be seen as campaign funding from a foreign source, which might run afoul of Israel’s very strict campaign financing laws. Worse, say critics, the newspaper’s free distribution — some even get home delivery for free — and super-low advertising rates create an uneven playing field that threatens to destroy the competition.
The loudest complaints come from journalists at the daily Maariv, which is already tottering. Maariv columnist Ben Dror Yamini said Adelson is ready to spend as much as it takes to wipe out all the existing Hebrew dailies. He predicts that Maariv will be the first to go, followed by Yediot Achronot. Within a few years, Yamini says, Israel will be left with a monopolistic party political pamphlet and no free press. His Maariv colleague Ben Caspit calls it a hostile takeover of democracy and free speech.
Their dire predictions, though, appear somewhat exaggerated.
Besides Yisrael Hayom, Israel has only three other Hebrew dailies: Maariv, Yediot and Haaretz. And although Maariv is not expected to survive much longer, Yediot remains a powerful economic empire. For Haaretz, the emergence of Yisrael Hayom has actually provided a boost in the form of significant printing revenues: Adelson’s newspaper is printed on Haaretz’s press.
For his part, Adelson dismisses the agitation against him as a ploy for power and market share by his competitors, notably Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yediot.
“Mozes, the publisher of Yediot, is the most powerful man in the State of Israel, and all he wants is to maintain his power, and he manipulates the government,” Adelson told JTA in an interview earlier this month. “Mozes will make a deal with anybody to advance his own personal financial agenda, so he controls everything. He was able to make or break any politician, and he uses that as a lever to get whatever he wants from the political sphere. Why is he always thumping on Bibi? Because he can’t control Bibi.”
Adelson also said the notion that Yisrael Hayom is a vehicle for Netanyahu is nonsense.
“Everybody thinks I started the newspaper Israel HaYom purely to benefit Bibi. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Adelson said. “I started the newspaper to give Israel, Israelis, a fair and balanced view of the news and the views. That’s all. It is not a ‘Bibiton.’”
In a long, often angry response to the charges against the paper, Yisrael Hayom’s editor, Amos Regev, echoed those arguments, accusing the owners of Maariv and Yediot of acting out of fear of losing their once prodigious influence.
Regev also argued that since electronic media use airwaves, which is state-owned space, the government is entitled to impose limitations on their ownership. Print journalism makes no use of public resources, however, and therefore should not be subject to restriction. Regev cited numerous examples of major newspapers around the world run by overseas owners, noting Australian-born Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire.
Others on Regev’s side add that newspapers are entitled to have political agendas and to support politicians; for example, American newspapers regularly endorse candidates for political office. As for the claim that Adelson’s pockets are so deep that Yisrael Hayom competes unfairly by offering free distribution, Regev says this is necessary for print newspapers to compete with free internet news Web sites.
Dahlia Dorner, the president of Israel’s Press Council and a former Supreme Court justice with considerable moral authority in Israel, calls the Knesset bill to outlaw foreign ownership of Israeli newspapers "inappropriate."
Dorner supports Regev’s distinction between TV channels and newspapers and says it would be wrong to limit newspaper ownership. The more newspapers there are, the healthier the marketplace of ideas and Israeli democracy, she says.
This analysis, of course, makes two implicit assumptions: That all the other newspapers don’t fold because of the uneven playing field, and that at least some continue to carry out the fourth estate’s most important functions: democracy watchdog and fearless critic of the powers that be.