One of the most consequential, and yet underappreciated, events in recent Israeli politics was the creation of the Israel Hayom newspaper in 2007. Israel Hayom (meaning Israel Today) is owned and bankrolled by Sheldon Adelson, who has recently become well known in the United States for his support of Newt Gingrich and now Mitt Romney through millions of dollars in super PAC donations. After only three years, it became the largest circulation newspaper in Israel, and because it is free, it is unlikely to give up its top spot any time soon. It is also unabashedly and unwaveringly supportive of Bibi Netanyahu, and has contributed to a media climate in Israel in which Netanyahu is often treated with exceeding deference.
While Adelson is Netanyahu’s most enthusiastic backer, this was not always the case. As detailed in the recent Vanity Fair profile of Bibi,a decade ago his billionaire champion was Ronald Lauder, who bought Channel 10 in order to provide Netanyahu with a friendly media outlet. Over time, as the independent channel became increasingly critical of Netanyahu, the friendship between he and Lauder deteriorated, and Netanyahu characterized it to Vanity Fair as “O.K. We’ve had warmer periods and cooler periods. I respect him, and he respects me.” Lauder himself has also become more openly critical of Netanyahu, giving what was in many ways a shocking interview a year ago in which he publicly disagreed with Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state before commencing negotiations and criticized his foot dragging on the peace process. This past month, Lauder took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal that was supportive of Netanyahu and placed the blame on the Palestinians for the impasse in the peace process, which was seen as an effort to repair ties with Bibi but also could have been a PR response to the airing of dirty laundry in the Vanity Fair piece. In any event, there is sufficient evidence that Lauder and Netanyahu have parted ways over the last ten years, both in their friendship and in their views on Israeli policy.
In light of all this, the news that Lauder is planning on starting an English language Israeli news website is intriguing. On the one hand, this might be an effort to improve Israel’s image among the world’s English speaking population or even reconnect American Jews to Israel. On the other, this might also be a subtle dig at Adelson and Lauder’s attempt to shape Israeli news abroad as Adelson has done in Israel. Adelson and Lauder do not get along at all, and Lauder’s influence with Netanyahu has waned in direct proportion to Adelson’s increased clout, so it will be interesting to see if Lauder’s new venture is as pro-Bibi as Israel Hayom is. If Lauder has indeed broken with Netanyahu and believes that there needs to be greater pressure put upon him on the peace process front, the resulting clash of the titans will be interesting to watch.
Adelson and Lauder are not the only two billionaires inserting themselves into Israeli politics. Yediot reported today that Charles Bronfman and Ronald Cohen bankrolled the reservists’ protest on Saturday night, which clearly put lots of pressure on Netanyahu to back off his position earlier last week of ignoring Kadima’s demands regarding drafting Haredim. None of these developments are good, since the insertion of foreign money into Israeli politics, whether it be Adelson’s, Lauder’s, or Bronfman’s, is not going to end well. If you need any confirmation of that, just ask Ehud Olmert how things have been going for him lately. It doesn’t appear as if this trend is abating any time soon though, and given the different personalities and viewpoints involved, it looks like Adelson is about to have some competition.