JERUSALEM (Reuters) - “You have to play the media like a piano,” an adviser recalls being told by his ex-boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But critics say Netanyahu, known as “Bibi”, is hitting the wrong note when it comes to the media, weakening press freedom and holding sway over TV broadcasters in a country that bills itself as the Middle East’s only true democracy.
Already Israel’s longest-serving leader since David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu wields broad power. As well as being prime minister he is economy minister, foreign minister, regional cooperation minister and communications minister.
That concentration of authority has raised eyebrows among critics, particularly when it comes to the media.
Elected to a fourth term in March this year, opponents, members of the press and media experts say Netanyahu not only enjoys the unbending support of Israel’s most popular newspaper but holds the keys to the survival of two TV news channels, too.
The prime minister, who heads a right-wing coalition and has described broadcasters as overly critical, says his aim is to strengthen pluralism, bring in new players and boost competition in a sector many Israelis see as leaning heavily left.
“I completely reject claims that I‘m trying to take over the media. I am in favor of a multiplicity of channels,” Netanyahu told Israeli journalists in a briefing in May.
Rather than the nightly news, it is the free-sheet morning press that many opponents see as promoting Bibi’s agenda.
Since 2007, U.S. casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major Netanyahu supporter, has published a free handout called Israel Hayom, Israel Today. It now has the nation’s largest circulation, eclipsing Yedioth Ahronoth, founded in 1939.
With a daily dose of pro-Bibi headlines, and often recycling the government’s talking points verbatim, the newspaper has drawn criticism even from members of Netanyahu’s government.
“Israel Hayom is Pravda, it’s the mouthpiece of one man – the prime minister,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads a far-right, pro-settlement party, said last year.
Adelson bats away criticism of his publication. Debating last year whether Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, he said: “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy ... Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state. So what?”
A spokesman for Adelson did not respond to a request for comment.
In court documents filed in February in reply to a petition requesting the paper be declared propaganda and banned ahead of the election, the newspaper and Netanyahu both said the prime minister had no present or past involvement in Israel Hayom or what it prints.
But the paper did say its ideology was in line with Netanyahu, whose office has acknowledged that he is a “personal friend” of the paper’s editor and owner. The Supreme Court rejected the petition.
Several Israel Hayom journalists declined to comment, but foreign affairs editor Boaz Bismuth said the criticism was based on animosity toward Netanyahu and competitors’ anger at losing ground to the paper.
“In seven years I’ve never had any interaction about what I write with anyone outside,” he said. “I report to my editor.”
Yedioth Ahronoth, which has lost advertising revenue as its circulation has fallen behind Israel Hayom, is critical of Netanyahu. That has led to public spats, with Netanyahu accusing its publisher of trying to overthrow his leadership.
Yedioth’s publisher, Noni Mozes, did not respond to requests for comment, but the newspaper said its journalists operated with utmost professionalism, as expected in a free democracy.
“Journalism’s role is to expose wrongdoing and criticize the government,” the newspaper said. “Regrettably this is not taken for granted any more with the direction in which Israeli media is headed in the past few years.”
The tangles over Israel Hayom are only one area in which critics see Netanyahu as being compromised. There is greater concern about the influence he has over TV operations as Israel’s communications minister.
The country is in the midst of government-mandated reforms that will transform the broadcast landscape, and as communications minister, Netanyahu is driving the changes.
State-run Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) is expected to be shut down and replaced by a new body. The reforms have been in the works for a while, but since taking over the communications portfolio in May, IBA journalists say Netanyahu has made his presence felt from afar.
Fearing for their careers, journalists say output has become less critical of Netanyahu.
“When was the last time you saw us run a report that shook up the government?” IBA reporter Rotem Avrutsky told Reuters.
“Censorship is the minds of the journalists. They’re afraid of their professional future.”
A public council is meant to oversee the process of winding up IBA and establishing its successor. But its members, selected months ago, have not been approved by Netanyahu. That means decision-making remains in the hands of the ministry’s director-general, who was appointed by the prime minister. Bitter disputes over budgets and layoffs have ensued.
“He is constantly creating an atmosphere of financial and existential uncertainty, keeping people on their toes and by that creating leverage,” said Elad Man, a legal analyst for The Seventh Eye, a long-running Israeli media review program.
The Communications Ministry said approval of the council was delayed by Jewish holidays in September and October and the process would continue “in the coming days”. The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
As well as IBA, which Avrutsky described as “just one link in the creation of a docile, submissive media”, Netanyahu’s communications role gives him a say over the future of Israel’s most popular news show, Channel Two News.
Under a separate government-led initiative, Channel Two, a commercial station, is expected to be split up by 2017, which would lead to the break-up of its news operation.
A panel set up by Netanyahu to overhaul broadcasting regulation is meant to submit its findings by the end of the year. The liquidation of IBA, and the establishment of a better-run state broadcaster, is widely seen as positive in Israel. But any changes to the free-to-air commercial stations, Channel Two and 10, are seen as a concern.
Amnon Abramovitz, Channel Two’s political analyst and a Netanyahu critic, said the government overhaul amounted to bullying by the prime minister.
“When you have a loaded gun, you don’t have to shoot it, everyone knows you have it,” he told Reuters. “There’s no direct warning, but there is this constant threat in knowing he, as communications minister, rules and can set up new channels.”
For Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, the Israel Democracy Institute’s media expert, the prime minister wants to get even with critics.
“Netanyahu wants to educate and in some ways even take vengeance on the media,” she said. “But in this war, no one is innocent, no side is clean.”
Israel Hayom, Yedioth Ahronoth, Channel Two, Channel 10 and the IBA all have an axe to grind in one way or another. Yet Shwartz Altshuler sees Netanyahu as spinning the grindstone.
“He tells people, ‘don’t pay attention to what is written, they are liars, don’t believe them’. This comes with a price,” she said. “It gives him short-term gains at the ballot box, but in the long term it is detrimental to democracy.”
Editing by Luke Baker, Jeffrey Heller and Giles Elgood