The press baron who's making news in Israel

A US casino tycoon has upset Israel's media establishment with the success of his newspaper

It is the brash upstart on the Israeli media scene with money to burn and already with a reputation it's trying to shed. Israel Hayom, a free newspaper that for the first time has stormed to the front of Israel's circulation battle, is such a strong backer of the prime minister that its critics call it "Bibiton" – a play on the nickname of Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition to the editorial line, the impression is compounded by the fact that founder and financier, the US Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is one of the premier's close friends.

But critics fear that the tabloid spells doom for a free media in Israel. They say the newspaper has a clear political agenda to support Mr Netanyahu. And the bottomless pockets of Mr Adelson, 76, presents a threat to the survival of his competitors and the wider issue of free speech that thrives in a diverse media. It is a criticism firmly rejected by Mr Adelson, a self-professed Zionist opposed to the two-state solution who reportedly once accused the owner of Ma'ariv, a rival title, of not being patriotic enough.

He is certainly a fascinating figure. Mr Adelson, described by one U.S. publication as "the richest man you never heard of", built a gambling empire that propelled him into the ranks of the top-three wealthiest men in America.

With a string of lawsuits behind him, Mr Adelson's peers describe him as an aggressive opponent, who is not afraid to play nasty. He has given hundreds of millions of dollars to right-wing and Zionist causes, many of them in Israel, and was a generous donor to US President George W Bush's re-election campaign for 2004.

"Everybody thinks I started the newspaper purely to benefit Bibi [Netanyahu]. Nothing could be further from the truth," Mr Adelson once told the Jewish Telegraph Agency. "I started the newspaper to give Israel, Israelis, a fair and balanced view of the news and the views. That's all. It is not a 'Bibiton.'"

Israel Hayom has taken a marginal lead of 0.3 per centage points of total readership over the popular daily Yedioth Aharonot, according to TGI Research, which conducts a biannual survey of newspaper readership. The rise falls within the survey's margin of error, but puts the freesheet on a par with Yedioth for the first time.

Israel Hayom is now read by some 35 per cent of Israelis, 10 percent up on a survey six months ago. Ma'ariv, another popular Israeli tabloid, trails in third with 12.5 per cent, while Haaretz, a liberal broadsheet, stands at 6.4 per cent.

The development underscores the successful model of a free paper and marks a radical shift in Israel's newspaper industry, which for decades has been dominated by just three titles. "This is endless capital with a political agenda," said Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist with Ma'ariv. "We have no idea how to deal with it."

Since its establishment, the paper has slavishly supported and promoted Mr Netanyahu, media experts say, while it was fiercely critical of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who was toppled over corruption charges. "If you follow how they edit it, when they are pro-Netanyahu and when they hide information on Netanyahu, you realise very quickly that they are a pro-Netanyahu paper," said Uri Benziman, editor of Seventh Eye, a media watchdog affiliated to the Israel Democracy Institute. The newspaper refused to respond to the criticisms, saying only that "the [survey's] results speak for themselves".

Israel Hayom's early success provoked a storm of reaction in Israel, chiefly from its paying competitors Yedioth and Ma'ariv, both of which found themselves vulnerable to the circulation war.

Lobbied by newspaper chiefs, centrist politicians tried to get a Bill through parliament that would outlaw foreign ownership of an Israeli newspaper, citing fears that an outsider could influence domestic opinion. In another legislative attack, parliamentarians sought, again unsuccessfully, to limit the distribution of free newspapers.

Even today, though, it is difficult to measure Israel Hayom's influence. Every morning, an army of uniformed workers takes up position on major pedestrian streets, traffic intersections and train stations to hand out the freesheet.

Israel Hayom aspires to be on a par with its competitors. It is long at 64 pages or so, and closely imitates its main rivals. It uses scores of well-known commentators, some of them from the leftist camp.

But its impact on opinion is still negligible, experts say. It does not break stories, its columns do not shape opinion in the way that its competitors do. "I think its main success is because it's free," Mr Benziman said. "If it had to compete in a real market, it wouldn't do so well."

Nevertheless, the fact that it is so widely read reflects a growing right-wing phenomenon in Israel, influenced by a wave of nationalist immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the past two decades.

There is also a backlash against the Second Intifida, the Palestinian mass uprising characterised by frequent suicide bombings. At the elections in early 2009, even though centrist Kadima won the most seats, it was a victory for the right-wing which formed a coalition government with Mr Netanyahu at its head.

And in a survey earlier this year, a majority of Israelis said there was too much freedom of expression in Israel, and that journalists critical of the defence establishment ought to be punished for their criticisms.

Liberals seized on the findings with horror, but the poll nevertheless supports a growing perception within Israel that the left-wing media, such as the liberal Haaretz newspaper, are critical of the government to the extent that it is harmful to the state. Mr Adelson's paper is able to capitalise on that fear, playing on "patriotic emotions," said Mr Benziman. Those emotions were being har nessed yesterday, as a congratulatory editorial in the paper intoned: "Israel Hayom loves the State of Israel; therefore, Israeli people love Israel Hayom."

As the title pushes into the lead in the circulation wars, some commentators now fear that the debate has run its course.

"What does it mean for Israeli democracy? What does it mean for free speech? I don't have a good answer. Because it's becoming the biggest newspaper, politicians are becoming afraid to speak," said Ma'ariv's Mr Yemini. "We have to talk about it, because I don't want to be swallowed up."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all