The Allegation: Netanyahu Wanted the Best Image Power Could Buy

Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem. 

After Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel from the United States as a young man, he worked for a time as a marketing executive for a furniture company. Around the time he came back to Israel, he also changed his name back to Netanyahu. In the States, he'd rebranded himself as Benjamin Nitay. It was easier for Americans to pronounce.

Marketing and branding were the specialties that Netanyahu brought to his next career, in politics. He treated image-massaging not as a tool, but as a political philosophy.

This week he came a step closer to a possible prison term for that philosophy. 

Early on, Netanyahu developed a doctrine that Israel's poor standing internationally wasn't caused by its policies. Rather, the problem was a strategic failure to sell itself well to foreign audiences.

Most of all, though, Netanyahu marketed Benjamin Netanyahu. He worked hard on his speaking style, especially in front of television cameras. He learned to insert jokes, to toss in a line about American sports for an American audience, or about his then-toddler son singing a well-known hymn when he appeared before an Orthodox audience during his first run for prime minister. In English, he gave himself a rational, even moderate veneer. In Hebrew, he often rabble-roused.

After he won the premiership, and lost it in 1999, and resurrected himself politically, Netanyahu received two gifts that allowed him to go way beyond creating an image for the media to cover. 

The first gift was Israel Hayom, the daily newspaper started by his American casino-mogul backer, Sheldon Adelson in 2007. Whether the paper was Netanyahu's idea or Adelson's, the effect is the same: Netanyahu now had a major media operation that existed not to report on him but to advertise him.  

Adelson has millions to burn; the paper is given out for free on street corners and is now the largest circulation daily in a country where print on paper is still popular. Last year a freedom-of-information lawsuit by investigative journalist Raviv Drucker forced Netanyahu to release a list of dates and times for his phone calls to Adelson and to the editor of Israel Hayom.He averaged 0.75 calls weekly to Adelson, and 1.5 calls per week to the editor—and as many as five calls a day to the paper's editor during the last national election campaign. Let's assume he wasn't calling to check on soccer scores.

The other gift was technological: the birth of social media. Netanyahu's Facebook page has 2.3 million followers. Even if a great many of those are foreign fans, it's likely that the proportion of Israelis reading his posts exceeds the proportion of Americans reading Donald Trump's tweets. (Netanyahu also has 1.4 million Twitter followers.) 

Radio and television were revolutions that allowed leaders to speak, unmediated, to masses. Facebook and Twitter are radio and TV on mega-steroids. Social media allow a leader to speak to followers whenever they want, as often as they want—without reporters giving background or checking facts. Then what the leaders say keeps echoing as the post spreads. 

A fine example of Netanyahu's use of Facebook was his post on election day in 2015, when he warned his followers that “the rule of the right is in danger” because Arab voters were “moving in droves to the polling places.” The post certainly helped him; it may have won him the election. 

A great example of the difference between a normal newspaper and one that exists to serve a national leader came this Monday. On the front page of Yediot Aharonot—the country's second-largest paper—the tabloid headline in red print said, “Bribery,” above a picture of Netanyahu and his wife Sara. Smaller print said that the police have recommended charging both of them in what's known as Case 4000. The front of the Netanyahu paper Israel Hayomhad three lines of headline: one line on police recommendation, and two lines devoted to him denouncing the police investigation. 

The essence of Case 4000: Netanyahu, with the help of officials he appointed, allegedly intervened in regulatory decisions to help Shaul Elovitz, who had the controlling interest in the Bezeq telecom company. In return, Elovitz allegedly allowed Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu to intervene “ flagrantly and continuingly” in the Walla news website that Elovitz also owns. The Netanyahus allegedly meddled in what stories Walla ran and who its editors and reporters were, all to get the flattering coverage they wanted. 

Because if there's one thing better than a news operation that everyone knows is in the palm of your hand, it's a sycophantic news operation that the public thinks is independent. 

For those just tuning in now, the police conclusions in Case 4000 are the sequel to the police statement on Case 1000 and Case 2000 in February. In both those cases, the police also recommended charges against the prime minister. In Case 1000, the Netanyahus allegedly got one million shekels (over a quarter-million dollars) worth of cigars, champagne, and jewelry from two businessmen. One of them, Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, was trying to buy a piece of Israel's Channel Two TV, which broadcasts the most popular news show in the country. Netanyahu allegedly intervened in regulatory negotiations to help him. 

In Case 2000, Netanyahu allegedly offered governmental goodies to the owner of Yediot Aharonot—yes, the other big paper, the independent one—in return for fawning coverage. 

These are all still allegations. Israeli prosecutors, headed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, have to decide if they have a solid enough case to try Netanyahu. If they indict him, it will still have to go to court.

So let's just say that there's a very strong suspicion that Netanyahu has turned political marketing into a criminal enterprise. Every politician in a democracy needs to worry about image. For Netanyahu, it appears, his image had become an end in itself, more important than law.

Still, there's some light in this dark story: Some of the allegations against Netanyahu emerged out of serious investigative journalism. And by trying to corrupt the free press, Netanyahu also provides some lessons about what the free press should be. 

The Internet and social media have taught us to expect our news for free, with its quality judged only by clicks and likes. That's the wrong kind of “free.” One of the jobs of the media is to mediate—to judge the quality of information, to question the politician, to decide what not to cover. To do that costs money. We should be willing to pay. Subscribe or donate to the three or four news sources you respect the most.

But with money and the profit motive come the temptation to pander—to the government or to what the public wants to hear. The crass manipulations alleged committed by Netanyahu and some Israeli media owners are illegal. I don't think any law can prevent the moral corruption of the media practiced, for instance, by Fox to please Donald Trump and his supporters. 

A free press depends on everyone in the news business, journalists but also those on the business side, regarding it as a calling. Netanyahu's (alleged) determination to subvert that calling is a reminder of how important it is.

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