A high-stakes election for Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s press

In April, the right-wing bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, won a high-stakes election, but lacked a majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Following talks, Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition government. Rather than give rivals a go, he triggered fresh elections, which take place today—as Haaretz, an Israeli daily, puts it, dryly, it’s an election “so nice they held it twice.” In a last-minute appeal, Netanyahu reminded supporters that voting is more important than sex. So far, turnout is surprisingly high. Netanyahu likely won’t lose outright, but his ability to form a coalition is, again, on a knife edge.

As was also the case in April, a pre-election cloud hangs over Netanyahu: he faces indictment on three counts of corruption, two of which relate directly to his dealings with media companies. In one case, known as Case 2000, Netanyahu stands accused of conspiring to curb the circulation of Israel Hayom—a free, pro-Netanyahu daily owned by Sheldon Adelson, the GOP megadonor and longtime Netanyahu benefactor—in exchange for better coverage in Yediot Ahronot, a rival paper that has traditionally been critical of Netanyahu. (The alleged plan never came to anything.) In the other—Case 4000—Netanyahu is accused of massaging the regulation of Bezeq, an Israeli telecoms giant, to win favors from Walla, a news website owned by Bezeq’s then-majority shareholder, Shaul Elovitch. (Elovitch also faces charges.) As Guy Rolnik of Haaretz wrote recently, Netanyahu channeled the tactics of Richard Nixon by hanging a regulatory “sword of Damocles” over Bezeq and Elovitch, who—wanting Netanyahu to approve a merger involving the company—ordered Walla to go easy on the prime minister and his wife, Sara; advisers of Netanyahu even dictated some of Walla’s coverage. The merger was approved, despite substantial antitrust concerns. As Ruth Margalit notes in an insightful recent profile of Netanyahu for CJR, Case 4000 is the most serious of the allegations he faces.

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Netanyahu, Margalit writes, has long been preoccupied by a desire to control the media and its narratives: he has, “perhaps to his ruin, built himself into the media’s omnipresent foil. Among analysts of Israeli politics, the most common word used to describe Netanyahu’s view of the press is ‘obsession.’” Netanyahu has always punched back at reporting he dislikes. In recent times, Margalit reports, his rhetoric has become increasingly Trumpian. Since the corruption charges were announced earlier this year, he’s whipped up talk of a “witch hunt” in the “leftist media,” and described himself as “the most maligned person in the history of Israeli media.” Ahead of April’s elections, he put the faces of critical journalists on a campaign billboard with the caption: “They will not decide. You decide.” Netanyahu has long refused TV interviews, preferring to communicate via social media. When he did sit down with a network, he chose Channel 20, an obscure outlet that has styled itself as (you guessed it) a sort of Israeli Fox News.

In recent days, with fresh elections looming, Netanyahu has engaged with the mainstream press, albeit on his terms. (While rivals appeared in network studios, Netanyahu patched in from home.) On Saturday, he appeared on Channel 12—weeks after calling for a boycott of the network and accusing senior staffers and shareholders of “a terror attack against democracy.” He used the interview to attack Channel 12, in particular, and the media, in general (as Raoul Wootliff put in The Times of Israel, Netanyahu was trying “to have his media and eat it too”). He faced a choice: “go to war with Hamas and Hezbollah or go to war with the media,” Shalom Yerushalmi wrote in early September, also in the Times of Israel. “Predictably enough, Netanyahu opted to wage war on the media, as fighting this type of enemy could potentially yield more Knesset seats and would not entail dreaded military funerals.”

Not that military war wasn’t a consideration. Haaretz reported yesterday that, after a rocket attack from Gaza forced him to take cover during a campaign rally, Netanyahu advocated a “significant” military response, but it was nixed on the advice of the attorney general (who is pushing the indictments against Netanyahu). In recent days, meanwhile, much international reporting has been dominated by Netanyahu’s pledge to annex swathes of the West Bank. (Some coverage, in The Guardian, for example, has centered fears among Palestinians that Benny Gantz, the lead opposition candidate, would do no more for their rights than Netanyahu, but, predictably, focus on such perspectives has been uneven.)

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There’s nothing new in Netanyahu making expansionist pledges to galvanize right-wing voters at election time. Nor is there anything unusual in his tooth-and-nail desperation to win. The pending indictments have undoubtedly raised the stakes—if Netanyahu wins a majority in the Knesset, he’ll be able to grant himself immunity from prosecution—but there’s an element of circularity here. Cases 2000 and 4000 both stem, at least in part, from Netanyahu’s efforts to bend the press at election time. In 2015, with the polls looking tight, Walla shared an alarmist message video from Netanyahu—“left-wing NGOs” were “busing” Arab voters to the polls, he said—on its website. Other outlets didn’t touch the video for fear of breaching Israel’s strict campaign laws.

Netanyahu’s luck may finally be about to run out. But pundits reading fears of an impending defeat into his frenzied, last-minute media blitz should exercise caution. As Anshel Pfeffer, a writer and commentator, tweeted yesterday, Netanyahu “fights every election telling himself he’s about to lose, which is why he’s won four times.”

Below, more on Israel:

  • An obsession: Israel’s Channel 12 reports that Miriam Adelson, wife of Sheldon and publisher of Israel Hayom, told police investigating Case 2000 that Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu repeatedly contacted her about the paper’s coverage. Sara Netanyahu “once told me that if Iran gets nuclear weapons and Israel is wiped out, I’ll be to blame, because I’m not defending Bibi,” Miriam Adelson reportedly said.
  • An obsession, continued: Earlier this month, Israel’s Channel 13 published recordings in which Netanyahu can be heard interfering with media regulation even after allegations about his relationship with Elovitch surfaced. Netanyahu reportedly told Ayoub Kara, the former communications minister, to help Channel 20.
  • Hate speech, part I: After Netanyahu’s broadside against Channel 12 and its staffers, Yossi Verter wrote for Haaretz that Netanyahu “will not rest until blood is spilled – the blood of a journalist.” Gantz called on Netanyahu to tone down his anti-press rhetoric “before it’s too late.”
  • Hate speech, part II: Last week, a Facebook chatbot linked to Netanyahu’s official account sent a message saying that Arab politicians in Israel “want to destroy us all.” Facebook suspended the bot, saying it violated its hate-speech rules. Netanyahu distanced himself from the message, but his campaign has been marked by the demonization of Arabs.


Other notable stories:

  • The Post’s Margaret Sullivan takes issue with the Times’s handling of a new allegation of sexual misconduct by Brett Kavanaugh, which appeared in an article based on a new book by Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly. (Full disclosure: Kelly is married to Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher.) The paper confusingly labeled the article as “news analysis,” promoted it via a crass tweet, and initially omitted a key piece of context—that the alleged victim did not corroborate the new allegation. “In these contentious days of bad-faith politics and maneuvering for advantage, the presentation and framing of stories—as well as their dead-on accuracy—are more important than ever,” Sullivan writes. “There’s little room for error and not a shred of forgiveness for it.”
  • Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg, gave a press conference with an empty podium yesterday after Boris Johnson, his British counterpart, declined to join him; Johnson nixed his participation because of noisy anti-Brexit protests nearby. “I think demonstrating is a right in a democracy, and it is important also to be able to exchange and to listen to each other,” Bettel said, before gesturing at the empty space to his right.
  • For CJR’s Covering Climate Now initiative, Cinnamon Janzer profiles Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and climate reporter for publications including Slate, The Wall Street Journal, and, as of this week, The Correspondent. Holthaus co-wrote “a manifesto on climate-change reporting that accuses The New York Times, The Washington Post, and television networks of complicity with the fossil fuel industry and suggests an alternative.”
  • The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer checks in with James Murdoch, who broke with his family’s media empire this year after his father, Rupert, merged most of it into Disney. “James did not want to comment on his relationship with his father, but said that they’d seen each other recently at a corporate board meeting. Asked whether the two talk, he said, ‘There are periods of time when we do not.’” (And no, he hasn’t seen Succession.)
  • The Houston Chronicle’s Emily Foxhall reflects on whether her recent coverage of a mass shooting in West Texas was helpful or exacerbated the victims’ pain. “People were experiencing the worst days of their lives, and there we were—dozens of us reporters from all over—desperate for our piece of the story,” Foxhall writes. “I can see how it seems slimy, unfeeling.” (In 2017, I analysed post-shooting media swarms for CJR.)
  • Also for Covering Climate Now, CJR’s Mathew Ingram is running a “virtual symposium” on Galley, our discussion forum. First up, Ingram chats with David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth; interviews with Mark Hertsgaard, of The Nation, and Emily Atkin, who just launched HEATED, a climate newsletter, will follow. If you have comments or questions about Covering Climate Now, you can ask them here.
  • Following Sunday’s presidential elections in Tunisia, Nabil Karoui, a media magnate who was jailed last month on tax-evasion and money-laundering charges, looks set to contest a runoff against Rais Saied, a law professor running as an independent. (Karoui was allowed to run as he hasn’t been convicted.) The AP’s Bouazza Ben Bouazza has the latest. ICYMI last week, Layli Foroudi profiled Tunisia’s national news agency for CJR.
  • And Paul Ingrassia, a Pulitzer-winning auto-industry reporter for the Journal who also served as managing editor of Reuters and president of Dow Jones Newswires, has died. He was 69. Joseph B. White, who shared the Pulitzer with Ingrassia, told the Journal that his former colleague proved “you don’t have to be nasty to get a good story.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.