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."

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Life and Style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone