The Making of an Echo Chamber
Benjamin Netanyahu faces criminal charges for the obsessive efforts to reshape Israeli media that have defined his career.
ON MARCH 17TH*, two weeks after Israelis went to the polls for the third time in under a year, one day after the members of the 23rd Knesset are officially sworn in, Benjamin Netanyahu will take the defendant’s chair in Jerusalem District Court. There, three criminal indictments will be read aloud to him, as required by law.
Israeli police began investigating Netanyahu in 2016, and the Jerusalem District Court formally indicted him three years later. The first charge against him, known as Case 1000, is straightforward. Its primary allegation is that Netanyahu accepted gifts (jewelry, champagne, and cigars) worth hundreds of thousands of shekels (around $264,000) from foreign billionaires in exchange for favors (procuring US visas, extending their tax exemptions). This is the kind of petty corruption you might expect from a man who has been in power for ten years and has developed certain garish tastes. The other two charges, for illegally conspiring to influence the media and media market, are more complex. Behind them lies the complicated story of Netanyahu’s obsession with the media, his conviction that it is out to get him, and his insistence on reshaping it.
The two cases in question both concern allegations of quid pro quo. Case 2000 alleges that Netanyahu offered Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Aharonot, one of Israel’s two leading dailies, a deal. Netanyahu reportedly told Mozes that he would negotiate some form of reduced circulation for the paper’s free competitor, Israel HaYom, which is owned by American casino mogul, Republican megadonor, and long-time Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson. In exchange, Yedioth and its sister website Ynet would cover Netanyahu more favorably. Netanyahu and Mozes referred to this potential about-face as “turning the ship around.”
The indictment states that Netanyahu and Mozes discussed various ways they might diminish Israel HaYom’s influence: passing a bill in the Knesset that would restrict the paper’s circulation, canceling its weekend edition, or limiting the amount of advertising that could appear in its pages. Later, when the legislative option stalled, Netanyahu offered to ask Adelson to “voluntarily” limit the paper’s circulation. (Adelson didn’t bite. In fact, he became quite angry.) According to transcripts of Netanyahu and Mozes’s conversations, reported by investigative journalist Raviv Drucker, the prime minister demanded that the press comply with his ambitions to be reelected. “I’m not talking in terms of . . . honest and . . . reasonable media,” he told Mozes (ellipses reflect gaps in the transcript). “And not just the question . . . of lowering the level of hostility towards me from 9.5 to 7.5.” In the recording, Mozes says back to him, “Nu, of course. We need to make sure you will be prime minister.”
Mozes may have believed Netanyahu’s promises of a reduced role of Israel Hayom. According to the indictment, Yedioth and Ynet did begin to cover Netanyahu more favorably and to attack his enemies, sometimes in response to direct requests. In one conversation between Mozes and Netanyahu, the latter said he hoped Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party (a rival of his own Likud) would not break 15 seats in the upcoming election. According to reports, Ynet published an article attacking Bennett three days later. Though the effects of this coverage on elections can’t be proven, Netanyahu got his wish: Jewish Home’s share of seats in the Knesset fell from 12 to eight (that number is down to seven in the latest round of elections).
The other media corruption charge against Netanyahu, Case 4000, claims that the prime minister struck a deal with media mogul Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications firm. Elovitch allegedly allowed Netanyahu and his family to make “egregious demands” with regard to coverage of the first family and other politicians on Walla! News, one of Israel’s largest news sites, which Elovich owns. In return, Netanyahu is accused of delaying regulatory reforms and enabling business deals that financially benefited Elovitch.
According to the indictment, Elovitch came away with approximately 1.8 billion shekels (around $500 million) from these deals. As for the Netanyahus, they were granted the opportunity to make “many intensive demands over several years, hundreds of demands, sometimes on a daily basis, that were sometimes conveyed at irregular hours” (emphasis in original). Walla! News was supposedly asked for favors like publishing a picture of the prime minister and his wife Sara at Ariel Sharon’s funeral, or swapping an unflattering photo of Sara for a more flattering one.
Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust both in Case 2000 and in Case 4000. In the latter case he is also charged with bribery, a more serious crime, because, unlike in the former, he seems to have followed through on his promises.
From the start, Netanyahu’s response to these indictments has been to position himself as a victim of the media. On August 9th, 2017, he gathered his most faithful supporters in Tel Aviv at a rally and delivered his trademark message: “We know that the left and the media—and we know that it’s the same thing—is on an unprecedented hunt against me and my family to bring down the government.”
In that same speech, he blamed the media for bringing down the first government he was a part of, Yitzhak Shamir’s right-wing regime, in 1992. He blamed it for the Oslo Accords, and consequently, the Second Intifada. Finally—in a tactic he has employed for years now—he lumped the media and the left in with the Palestinians. All, he said, want to see the investigations bring him down. The crowd responded with boos and chants of “down with the media.” Later that same month, he argued that the journalists covering his corruption probes were “committing a terror attack on democracy.”
The demonization of the media has become a hallmark of Netanyahu’s career. He has picked fights with individual journalists like respected investigative reporter Ilana Dayan, whom he called a “member of the extreme left” intent on “toppling the right-wing government.” His Likud party put up a campaign billboard with the faces of four well-known journalists with the line “They won’t decide. You decide. In spite of it all, Netanyahu!” The Prime Minister’s Office, responding to a Haaretz article critical of Netanyahu and his relationship to the media, suggested the well-respected left-leaning newspaper had links to outlets that published Nazi propaganda during World War II. He sued a Yedioth reporter for suggesting in a Facebook post that Netanyahu’s wife threw him out of a car.
Israel’s media market is changing rapidly, as markets are around the world. Its ownership structures are narrowing as moguls consolidate their holdings. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, for example, own not only Israel HaYom but also the religious Zionist paper of note, Makor Rishon. A glut of media content and a dearth of advertising revenue also means that Israel HaYom, for instance, publishes every day at a huge loss, but distributes for free, and allegedly charges advertisers well beneath the industry standard. Adelson, like many in this new generation of media owners, does not appear to be in it for the money, but rather for the influence. And when money is no object, the competition can’t keep up. As advertisers move toward the digital behemoths of Google and Facebook, media companies have begun to bleed money, and the likes of Noni Mozes are willing to do a lot to put themselves back on top.
In this sense, Netanyahu’s behavior in cases 2000 and 4000, according to Oren Persico, a journalist and media critic at Israeli outlet The Seventh Eye which covers the Israeli media, “doesn’t come out of the blue.” The main difference between Netanyahu and his predecessors was that he took the corruption to an extreme—and got caught.
TO UNDERSTAND WHY Netanyahu desperately sought more favorable press coverage in the first place, a bit of family history is called for. The prime minister’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, was a scholar of medieval Jewish history and secretary to Ze’ev Jabotinksy, the leader of Israel’s revisionist Zionist right. Benzion never received a position at Hebrew University, and the family eventually relocated to the United States. As Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Chagai Ben-Artzi, told the New Yorker, Benzion felt that his denial was an act of exclusion by the elite Labor-left that ran the university. Arguably, the Israeli “elite”—a catch-all term used by the right for the academy, the judicial system, and, most importantly, the media—was Benjamin Netanyahu’s enemy from childhood.
Still, not unlike his American bosom-buddy Donald Trump, the young Netanyahu began by harnessing the power of American TV. In the early 1980s—after a decade spent serving in Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit, mourning the death of his brother Yoni in the raid on Entebbe, completing degrees in architecture and business management from MIT, and working at the Boston Consulting Group—he built a home studio to practice for television interviews and took classes in public speaking. He wrote a book called Terrorism: How the West Can Win. And then he went on television, every chance he got, as a terrorism expert.
The American press saw Netanyahu as a wunderkind. He became a darling of the American Jewish right, including its billionaires. The 2019 Israeli documentary King Bibi notes how much then-president Ronald Reagan enjoyed Netanyahu on television, and that Reagan reportedly read Netanyahu’s book aloud to Secretary of State George Shultz. Netanyahu was soon hired as the official spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. Then, at 35, he was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. By the time Netanyahu resigned his UN position in 1988 to move back to Israel and try his hand at politics, he had learned an important lesson: the media can make a career.
Back in Israel, Netanyahu was received as a star. According to Haaretz media reporter Nati Tucker, however, “he didn’t bring up the criticism he had of the media in those days. He thought he was dependent on the media. He was a young, successful diplomat from New York with the scent of a soldier in Sayeret Matkal, and he knew how to use it to grow politically.”
Still, Netanyahu’s Likud party, like Netanyahu himself, was defined by its hostility toward Israel’s elites. Persico explained that when Netanyahu entered the Israeli media scene, it was still “one of the last strongholds of the old elite.” It was “pretty homogenous, Tel Aviv-centered, older, male, not ‘left,’ but what in Israel they call ‘Mapainik,’” Persico said, referring to the center-left precursor to Israel’s Labor Party that dominated Israeli politics in the country’s early years.
Still, even when his career was first rocked by domestic scandals, Netanyahu sought out the media. In 1993, two months out from his bid for the leadership of the Likud party, Sara Netanyahu—his third wife—learned he was having an affair with married political consultant Ruth Bar. According to Vanity Fair, Bar had been hired, “ironically enough, to gussy up his image.”
Netanyahu broke the story himself. “No one knew,” Tucker said. “He came out at 8:00 pm and detonated the story . . . it was a smart use of the media.” Netanyahu said that yes, he had committed adultery, but also implied that his political rival—a man named David Levy—had caught him on tape with his lover, and had threatened to release it if he didn’t drop out of the race. Netanyahu called the threat “the worst political crime in Israeli history, perhaps in the history of democracy.” Levy flatly denied the blackmail charge and the police never found a sex tape. Netanyahu had to apologize to Levy, but he won the Likud primary by a landslide.
BY THE MID-1990s, Netanyahu had developed a close relationship with Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, likely worried that Labor candidate Shimon Peres would, like Rabin before him, work towards a two-state solution, was widely reported to be a key backer of Netanyahu, eventually rallying American Jewish support, and bolstering his political aims on an international stage in subsequent elections. (At Netanyahu’s victory rally, signs in the crowd foreshadowed what was to come: “Leftist journalists, go home.”)
During Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister he was embroiled in two scandals, both broken by mainstream media outlets. The first began when Yedioth Aharonot published a wildly unflattering investigative report about Sara Netanyahu abusing her staff. It claimed she threw shoes at employees and demanded they taste her wine to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. To rehabilitate her image in the wake of these stories, Sara sat down for a pre-recorded interview with prominent interviewer Yael Dan. Before Sara cut it short (the journalist was asking too many uncomfortable questions) she made a point that her husband would come to repeat over and over. “Much of the media cooperates with the opposition—the left,” she said. “And it is no secret that there are those who would like to hurt us.”
The second scandal occurred when Netanyahu, bowing to American pressure, agreed to a deal with the Palestinian Authority. In 1997, he signed an agreement known as the Hebron Accord (which he later publically regretted). His party, and much of the right wing, viewed this as a betrayal. “As his political career started to limp,” said Tucker, “the right wing turned its back on him, and the media did too. They started criticizing him harshly.” In order to get the support he needed for the agreement, he made a deal with then-Interior Minister Arye Deri. Channel 1 reported that in exchange for Deri’s support on the Hebron Accord, Netanyahu agreed to appoint a new attorney general who would close a bribery case against Deri. Netanyahu responded to this news coverage by attacking the press, claiming that “some in the media, especially Channel 1, are incapable of coming to terms with the voters’ decision in the last election.” His argument—one he would stick to for years—was that the media was circumventing democracy. (Notably, the police recommended charging Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust, but unlike his current corruption cases, this file was closed for lack of evidence.)
It was in this period that Netanyahu began to bypass traditional media gatekeepers and go straight to his people. He launched the first website for the prime minister’s office, which promised viewers that they had arrived at a source for a “different” kind of information. The site’s opening video—of Netanyahu, in his trademark style, speaking directly into the camera—promised visitors that they would no longer need to be “reliant on all kinds of commentators, or mediators through the media.” Instead, “you can ask what you want to ask—and you can decide what you hear and what you see.” Years before Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook and nearly a decade before YouTube, Netanyahu was in direct contact with his supporters.
In the lead-up to the 1999 elections, Netanyahu expected a loss. But he rallied his supporters with a famous slogan that has, ever since, been burned into the brains of Israelis on both the left and the right: “HEM M-E-F-A-C-H-A-D-I-M!” Bibi screamed, the crowd screaming with him, “They are A-F-R-A-I-D!” “They” referred to the left-wing media. What were they afraid of? The right-wing in power. Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro would all borrow from this authoritarian playbook. Tucker says that Netanyahu has held onto this central thesis “to this day. He has not changed the narrative at all.”
After only three years in power, Netanyahu lost the premiership to newly minted Labor leader Ehud Barak. Netanyahu had opposed the peace process Labor supported, and, according to Persico, “The media saw Netanyahu as a villain—a miscreant—the one responsible for Rabin’s assassination and the death of the Oslo peace process.” Netanyahu felt that the elite—the media in particular—had never seen his 1996 victory as legitimate. According to Alon Pinkas, a longtime Israeli diplomat who occasionally writes for Yedioth, Netanyahu blamed his loss on a “comprehensive campaign that Yedioth supposedly ran against him.”
Immediately following his loss, according to Netanyahu biographer Ben Caspit, Netanyahu told anyone willing to listen that “when he came back, he would have his own media.” The fulfillment of such a bold promise must have seemed nearly impossible at the time, but Netanyahu pulled it off: By the time he was reelected in 2009, ten years after his pledge, he had his own newspaper, Israel HaYom, and it was distributed for free. Israelis called it the Bibi-ton, a mash-up of Netanyahu’s nickname and the word for “newspaper” in Hebrew. From then on, Persico says, “he was obsessive . . . [Netanyahu] wouldn’t play the game” the way prime ministers before him had.
IN THE PAST TEN YEARS, Netanyahu has transformed the Israeli media ecosystem. He didn’t have an orderly strategy; instead, according to Persico, “it was more like shooting in all directions in a kind of impulsive way—with a general direction.” He tried to sabotage a plan initiated by members of his own party to replace Israel’s public broadcasting corporation with a lighter-weight, digitally-enhanced version after determining that this new network might not be sufficiently friendly to him. Netanyahu intervened in professional appointments at Army Radio, Israel’s most popular radio station (and a unit of the Israeli Defense Forces). He facilitated a merger between two of Israel’s top channels (10 and 13) to tamp down the oppositional spirit of Channel 10. And he facilitated the hiring of loyal “journalists” by mainstream media organizations, including the public broadcasting corporation. Tucker calls these people “propagandists,” or “people dressed as journalists.”
In 2014, once Netanyahu’s negotiations with Mozes had outlived their usefulness, he broke up his own government rather than allow the Knesset to pass a version of the law he had discussed with Mozes to curtail Yisrael HaYom. When he re-formed his government in the wake of elections in 2015 (which he did not expect to win in large part due to Yedioth’s harsh coverage), he appointed himself Minister of Communications and told Amos Shocken of Haaretz that he was “no longer afraid.”
Netanyahu’s first act in that office was to summarily fire the ministry’s standing director general over the phone, and to appoint a man named Shlomo Filber as a replacement. Filber was Bibi’s man—before his appointment to the Ministry in 2015, he was the Likud Party’s campaign manager, chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements, and a loyal aide to the prime minister since his first term. Filber was a key facilitator of Netanyahu’s alleged crimes: He followed Netanyahu’s orders, approving the dirty deals that enriched the billionaires both in cases 1000 and 4000. Until Filber flipped to become a state witness, he helped pave the way for Netanyahu’s people inside outlets like the public broadcasting corporation, making requests that various people identified with Netanyahu and his worldview be hired.
But by then, Netanyahu had also begun to make mistakes. He grew simultaneously more elusive and (even) more combative towards the media. He began to take advice from his son (and erstwhile Twitter troll) Yair Netanyahu. His deal with Noni Mozes imploded. Alongside Israel HaYom, Netanyahu built other personal megaphones, and virtually stopped giving interviews to the main news channels, with the notable exception of those identified with the ideological right (he continued to make appearances on Channel 20, sometimes referred to as the Fox News of Israel, and used his platform there to lambaste the “fake news” promulgated by other outlets). In February 2019, Netanyahu launched LikudTV, a party-run channel, to “throw the ‘fake’ out of the news” and offer “true facts, unfiltered by the manipulative media.” His Facebook page now has more followers than any Israeli political or media outlet.
The prosecutors began to catch up with Netanyahu. According to Persico, they hadn’t wanted to press charges. “It was impossible to ignore, though they tried to ignore it. [Avichai] Mandelblit, the Attorney General—he had been Bibi’s friend. He did not want to do this. But then they brought him recordings [of conversations between Netanyahu, Mozes and Elovitch]—that was it.”
Despite foot-dragging by Netanyahu’s lawyers and an attempted bid for immunity, the prime minister will now be tried in court. His trial is likely to start, but less likely to conclude. If Netanyahu, after this week’s elections, is able to form a coalition, he will do nearly everything in his power to get that trial cancelled—whether it means firing the Attorney General and replacing him with someone more pliant or trying to pass a law that would allow him to defer his trial until his tenure is up. If, on the other hand, he can’t form a coalition, and enough members of the opposition vote to pass a law that an indicted prime minister cannot form a government, he will have to face trial as a simple citizen.
As for the media, the future is no less murky. The lasting impact of Netanyahu’s decade spent stacking Israel’s media in his favor will not evaporate even if his chances at forming a government do. Israel HaYom, for example, isn’t going anywhere. Despite the Adelsons’ anger with Netanyahu for selling him out to Mozes, the paper showed up for the prime minister during the last election cycle, reliably running positive stories about Netanyahu, supporting his positions, and attacking his enemies. The cheerleading “journalists” who have infiltrated the mainstream media outlets will likely keep their jobs.
In Persico’s view, if there is no trial, “the chance for change is nil.” Even if there is one, “and all the nastiness comes out,” there is little likelihood that the linked trifecta known in Israel as “hon-shilton-iton” or “capital-government-media” (in Hebrew it rhymes) will shift. “The media needs to be changed from the ground up,” Persico said. “A restructuring, such that it does not depend on the government and advertisers, but [instead] on its readers. As long as the basic structure remains intact, the only thing that will change is the players, not the problems.”
*Due to the spread of the coronavirus, the original date of Netanyahu’s trial was postponed. It began on May 24, 2020.
A previous version of this story cited an exchange between Netanyahu and Mozes based on reporting from Israel’s Channel 2. The wording of the exchange has been updated in accordance with a more complete transcript of the conversation later released by journalist Raviv Drucker. A previous version of this piece also suggested that Benzion Netanyahu was denied tenure at Hebrew University, when in fact he never received a position at the university to begin with.
Elisheva Goldberg is the media and policy director for the New Israel Fund and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. She was an aide to former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and has written for The Daily Beast, The Forward, The New Republic, and The Atlantic.