Tel Aviv — When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next goes to the polls, he looks set to have a stronger chorus of support from the national media than any Israeli candidate in the last half-century.
The next election must take place by October 2013, and the main international and domestic challenges facing the Israeli leader are not likely to have changed much. But by then, one of Israel’s oldest centrist mainstream dailies will be in the hands of a new right-wing owner. The financial position of the country’s most liberal daily newspaper may be much weakened. And a major Israeli TV station known for its hard-hitting exposés of Netanyahu and his government may be out of business.
Furthermore, if these changes take place, as currently seems likely, two of the three shifts will be seen as attributable, in no small measure, to the impact of a man who is not even an Israeli citizen: the American casino mogul and strong Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson, whose $32 billion fortune has earned him the title of richest Jew in the world.
In the most immediate shift, Ma’ariv, one of Israel’s two mass-circulation newspapers, both of which occupy the political center and commonly take a critical line toward the right-wing Netanyahu-led government, is in the process of being sold to an ultra-nationalist settler.
Ma’ariv is in financial crisis, with its weekday edition’s share of newspaper readers having almost halved to 12% in the last decade. Before the prospective owner, Shlomo Ben-Zvi, stepped in, the paper was planning on becoming a web-centric publication that would issue print editions only on Fridays and holiday eves. If the deal doesn’t work out, sources at the paper say that migration to the web, or complete closure, is imminent. If the sale happens, Ben-Zvi is expected to shift Ma’ariv to the right, either under the existing Ma’ariv brand or by merging with Makor Rishon, the ultra-right daily that he already owns.
In anticipation of major layoffs and fearing difficulties receiving severance pay, hundreds of Ma’ariv employees demonstrated in Tel Aviv on September 11, some of them burning tires and blocking roads.
Meanwhile, the future is less certain for Haaretz, the mainstream newspaper that is furthest to the left and most critical of Netanyahu. With a financial crisis there worsening, the newspaper’s board has plans for further layoffs and other austerity measures, which prompted a demonstration in its offices, also on September 11. (The Forward shares some content with Haaretz, mostly online.)
The sale of Ma’ariv may indirectly accentuate the Haaretz Group’s woes. Haaretz’s press also prints Israel’s most circulated newspaper, Israel Hayom, which is distributed for free. This contract accounts for 15% to 20% of Haaretz’s revenue stream, according to the Israeli economic newspaper Globes. Ma’ariv’s deal with Ben-Zvi doesn’t include its printing press, and Haaretz has acknowledged in its own pages that Israel Hayom may buy the Ma’ariv press and dump its printing contract with Haaretz. That would deal the struggling liberal paper a financial blow, and it’s not clear whether Haaretz’s aggressive move to win over subscribers for its popular English language website will make up the difference.
“[Netanyahu] has a situation where the people who criticize him are punished. But not by him — by the vengeance of the Gods,” said Zvi Reich, a former senior editor at the Yediot Aharonot daily, who is now a journalism researcher at Ben-Gurion University.
But while “the Gods” — by which Reich means factors outside the political spectrum such as a tough environment for print media globally — have contributed to the crisis at these newspapers, he acknowledges that this is not the whole story.