Newspaper wars, Israel-style

Ben Sales

Israel’s dailies have long been notorious for their strong, explicit political stances. The press is so partisan that when Yediot Aharonot, which is famously anti-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote an editorial praising him, the daily had to tell its readers it wasn’t joking.

The only paper that may beat Yediot in the partisanship department is Israel Hayom, a free daily founded and funded by American Jewish casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a strong Netanyahu supporter. Readers can pick up the paper for free at train stations and street corners across the country. Since launching in 2007 it’s become Israel’s leading daily.

Israel Hayom’s rise has been so forceful that last month, Knesset members from seven of Israel’s political parties (but none from Netanyahu’s Likud) cosponsored a bill that would outlaw free distribution of major daily newspapers. If passed, Israel Hayom would have to start charging a token fee.

Now, Israel Hayom is fighting back, publishing no fewer than three op-eds panning the bill in the past two days. A particularly unforgiving piece by Gonen Ginat took a step frowned upon in most American newspapers (but par for the course in Israel): He took aim at Yediot owner Arnon Mozes.

“There are other countries, not just Israel, where free newspapers are the most widely read and compete against others,” Gonen wrote. “In all these countries, the papers that cost money have understood the challenge and have tried to contend with it. Only in Israel could a newspaper owner, in this case Mozes, turn legislators into puppets on strings to help silence the competition.”

The bill’s sponsors, of course, hardly mention politics, talking only about helping Israel’s struggling newspaper market survive in the face of unfair competition. Labor MK Eitan Cabel, the bill’s lead sponsor, told business publication The Marker that he realized the need for the law when Maariv, a formerly popular daily, had to shut down earlier this year.

But even if the bill passes, Adelson has little to worry about. A month ago, he acquired the rights to Makor Rishon, the weekly newspaper that printed Maariv.

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Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.