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Why the Sheldon Adelson Newspaper War Matters

by Shmuel Rosner

April 10, 2014 | 2:55 am

Sheldon Adelson testifies at the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas on April 4, 2013. Photo by Jeff Scheid/Reuters

I published an article earlier this week in The New York Times that deals with American billionaire Sheldon Adelson's dominance of Israel’s right-wing media scene. Adelson is the owner of Israel Hayom, Israel's largest newspaper, and he just bought the much smaller but higher quality Makor Rishon – the niche paper of the hardcore Zionist-religious right. A fierce battle against Adelson is underway because of his possible influence on Israel's media market and public opinion.

My key point in that article was: by taking over both leading right-wing papers, Adelson "has taken an ideological camp and turned it into a personal one". As a very strong backer of Prime Minister Netanyahu – not that there's anything wrong with it – Adelson owns a paper that is rarely, if ever, critical of the PM. He now owns two papers, and one might suspect that now two papers will never be critical of Netanyahu.

Mr. Adelson’s representatives have promised the worried writers at Makor Rishon that their independence will not be compromised. But the writers understand, as everybody does, that Mr. Adelson did not buy the paper for a possible miniscule profit he can make out of it. He wants something else. 

Let me explain this some more: Often, when observers think about the opposition to Netanyahu in Israel they think about Israel’s left, about the Labor Party or even about the centrist partners in Netanyahu's coalition. But the opposition to Netanyahu from the right is no less important, and arguably more consequential. Case in point: The last two Likud Prime Ministers that saw their coalition crumble, Yitzhak Shamir and Netanyahu (in 1999), were toppled by parties to their right. And since Israel has drifted rightward in the last decade and a half, the internal battles of the majority camp, center and right-of-center, are of real significance.

The other day, Jonathan Tobin of Commentary Magazine mentioned my article in a post that was mainly dedicated to Thomas Friedman. Tobin argued that

Rosner’s concern is that Adelson may be about to “silence the Israeli right.” Thus, even though I believe Rosner is wrong about there being a danger that anyone in Israel will be silenced, Friedman’s absurd hyperbole about Adelson is not only lazy but also inaccurate.

I assume that Tobin refers to the headline of my article – "How to Silence the Israeli Right" – when he writes about "a danger that anyone in Israel will be silenced". He is, of course, correct – there is no such danger. Catchy headlines aside, I worry not about the silencing of views, but rather about the disappearance of the best vehicle for intelligent, high quality right-wing opposition to the center-right government. As I clearly explained: "with Mr. Adelson controlling both the mass-market Israel Hayom and the smaller Makor Rishon, it’s no longer clear that opposition from the right will ever have a megaphone with which to argue against Mr. Netanyahu’s policies."

As the readers of my New York Times article may have noticed, I have little patience for attempts to curb Adelson's influence by imposing restrictions on his ability to express his views and channel them through newspapers that he owns. Had it been the only newspaper in Israel the story would be different, but under the current circumstances it is hard to argue that there's a shortage in criticism of the government or of the Prime Minister – newspapers like Yediot, Maariv, Haaretz, Globes, and Sofhashavua offer plenty of criticism. The criticism that I'm worried about is that from the right – not because I agree with it (in fact, I do not agree with most of it), but because it is healthy for the government to have to answer to criticism from both sides of the political map.

So now two options are available for those who also have such concerns. One is to trust the promises made by Adelson's people that they will keep Makor Rishon free and will let it be as critical of Netanyahu as it used to be. That is the path that the writers of the paper were forced to adopt, and they do it with understandable trepidation and yet with some hope (I spoke to a number of them before writing my article). The other one is to battle Adelson, not by denigrating him or by legislating against him, but rather by competing with him. Such an idea has been floating around in recent days, in the form of rumors about a possible decision by the Yediot group to establish a new right-wing paper.

This will be a worthy enterprise, but also a costly one. That is to say, a test of priorities for all the concerned parties.

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