In October 2015, a journalist named Amir Tibon was asked by his editors at Walla!, a popular Israeli news website, to analyze Benjamin Netanyahu's handling of a wave of shooting and stabbing attacks by Palestinians. The resulting piece was balanced, but included mild criticism of the prime minister.
According to Tibon, he received a phone call from his editor-in-chief, who said, "We can't publish this. You know what the circumstances are right now."
Other reporters there now tell similar stories of being censored when their reports were critical of Netanyahu. The police have offered a possible explanation.
In December, they recommended that Netanyahu and seven other suspects, including the former chairman of Bezeq, a telecommunications company, be indicted on a charge of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In return for positive coverage on Walla!, Netanyahu is alleged to have intervened in regulatory matters to benefit Bezeq, which owns the website.
Reporters in Israel tend to be secular liberals, but their exposés have brought down politicians of all stripes. Netanyahu, who leads a coalition of nationalist and religious parties, has long believed the press is bent on tarnishing his image, thwarting his plans and removing him from power.
He thus set about trying to change the media landscape. He has pushed for laws and rules that would undercut his critics and boost his allies; encouraged his supporters to buy media outlets; and bullied reporters. He may also have broken the law.
'I need my own media'
The investigation into Netanyahu's dealings with Bezeq, known as Case 4000, is one of three that threaten to bring him down. The police have also recommended indicting Netanyahu in Case 2000, in which he is accused of negotiating illicit deals with a newspaper publisher for more favorable coverage. The third, Case 1000, involves Netanyahu's acceptance of gifts, allegedly worth more than $200,000, from Israeli tycoons.
Netanyahu denies wrongdoing in all three. The attorney general will decide soon whether to proceed with them.
Early in his career, when he was Israel's dashing young ambassador to the United Nations, Netanyahu benefited from glowing media coverage. The exposure helped him gain the top spot on the Likud party's list of candidates when he ran for the Knesset in 1988.
But his relations with the press deteriorated. When the Labor government under Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo accords with the Palestinians in 1993, most journalists supported it. Netanyahu, who had become leader of Likud, was the treaty's chief critic. When, two years later, a Jewish zealot murdered Rabin, much of the press accused Netanyahu of whipping up his supporters against the prime minister.
By the time Likud won at the polls in 1996, Netanyahu's supporters had begun referring to the "hostile press." When he lost power in 1999, he blamed reporters. Years later, while still in the political wilderness, he told his wealthy patrons, "I need my own media," and urged them to buy shares in news organizations. Sheldon Adelson, a U.S. casino mogul, founded Yisrael Hayom, which quickly became Israel's most widely read newspaper. It is so pro-Netanyahu that it is often called "Bibiton" — a portmanteau of Netanyahu's nickname, "Bibi," and the Hebrew word for newspaper, iton.
The popularity of Yisrael Hayom, which operates at a hefty loss, came at the expense of Israel's older newspapers, many of which saw their revenue from sales and advertising drop. This, according to the police, led to negotiations between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, a large newspaper that was critical of the prime minister. The two men were recorded discussing a deal that would have the paper ease up on Netanyahu.
"Take down the hostility toward me from 9.5 to 7.5," he told Mozes. In return, Netanyahu would allow legislation that limited the circulation of popular freesheets, such as Yisrael Hayom. Those discussions form the basis of Case 2000.
When the deal fell through, Netanyahu reverted to opposing the Yisrael Hayom bill, going so far as to dissolve his government in order to block it.
Following his fourth election victory in 2015, Netanyahu appointed himself communications minister and allegedly intervened on Bezeq's behalf. He also changed the regulations on private television broadcasters in ways that drove Channel 10, which was critical of the prime minister, to the brink of bankruptcy. On Jan. 14, the channel merged with Reshet, another private channel. Its main shareholder is now Len Blavatnik, a Soviet-born British-American businessman who has been questioned by the police over his ties to Netanyahu.
A growing echo chamber
In early 2017, under pressure from the opposition and Israel's high court, Netanyahu stepped down as communications minister. But he continued to influence the media. Later in the year he sought pre-emptively to muzzle a new public broadcaster by denying it permission to create a news department. Again he threatened to dissolve the government if he did not get his way. Meanwhile, a private station called Channel 20, licensed to broadcast religious content, received the government's blessing to run news programs. These often cast the prime minister in a positive light. Netanyahu favors it for interviews.
With Yisrael Hayom and Channel 20, Netanyahu has a growing echo chamber. But claims that Israel is going the way of Hungary, where Viktor Orban, the prime minister, has throttled the press, are overstated. Channel 20, with dismal ratings, is not nearly as influential as Fox News is in the United States. Most Israeli journalists remain critical of Netanyahu and have the backing of their editors and publishers.
For Netanyahu, that might not be a bad thing. He has become an astute user of social media. As Israel gears up for an election on April 9, billboards recently appeared featuring the pictures of four journalists who have published damaging revelations about the prime minister. A slogan on top reads, "They won't decide." After some confusion over who put them up, Likud took responsibility.