In the course of an Israeli-American Council Conference held in Washington, DC, on November 9, and in reaction to something Haim Saban had said about the danger to Israeli democracy if the two-state solution is not realized, Sheldon Adelson is reported to have retorted: “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy... God talked about all sorts of good things in life. He didn’t talk about Israel remaining a democratic state, and if Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state – so what?” So what, indeed.
Perhaps Adelson is not aware of the fact that Israel is not a halachic state, and is not run on the basis of what the Bible and/or God says or doesn’t say, even though it is defined by law as a Jewish and democratic state, where “Jewish” – in its original Zionist sense – stands for a state in which all Jews may settle. Furthermore, Israel’s Proclamation of Independence declares it to be a democratic state.
In fact, Sheldon Adelson’s position with regard to democracy is rather opportunistic. Thus, in reply to questions by reporters at the end of the Israeli-American Council Conference, and against the background of the approaching Knesset vote in preliminary reading on a bill designed to prevent the free distribution of major daily newspapers, Adelson said that closing down Israel Hayom – the free daily which he owns (more about this below) – would breed a dictator (i.e. Noni Mozes, owner of Yediot Aharonot). In other words, according to Adelson whether or not Israel turns into a dictatorship is a good or bad thing depending on the dictator: Netanyahu yes – Noni no.
Incidentally, if Adelson were an Israeli citizen (which he is not), his statement about Israel’s democratic future would probably disbar him from running in elections in Israel since according to article 7(1) of Basic Law: the Knesset anyone who negates “the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” is barred from running to the Knesset.
But the scandalous persona and political views of Sheldon Adelson are more of a topic for gossip than a serious political issue. The real problem is Israel Hayom, which was founded by Adelson in 2007 as a freely distributed daily, and into which he pours unlimited quantities of money. Israel Hayom also accepts ads at much lower prices than its sold competitors.
In addition to constituting unfair competition to the other Israeli dailies, at least one of which has already pushed out of existence as a daily as a result (the veteran Ma’ariv), Israel Hayom backs Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without any reservations – as a matter of policy dictated by Adelson, who doesn’t apologize for doing so. What is wrong with this, some may ask, pointing out that Yediot Aharonot takes the opposite position with regard to Netanyahu. Well, vive la petite différence.
Yediot Aharonot is not a freely distributed newspaper, and anyone who doesn’t want to read it simply doesn’t purchase it.
The combination of a freely distributed daily and absolute support for a particular politician constitutes in the eyes of all those worried about the rule of law in Israel, and the future of its democracy (which Adelson poo poos), a flagrant and audacious breach of the Israeli law concerning party and candidate financing. The money Adelson pours into Israel Hayom is simply not counted as part of the sums of money (limited by law) contributed to Netanyahu by persons and associations for political purposes, even though Israel Hayom may be considered a permanent pro-Netanyahu propaganda mouthpiece.
Whatever else may be said about Adelson, an idiot he is not, and just as he found the way of backing Republican presidential candidates with hundreds of millions of dollars, without contravening American laws on campaign contributions, so he found a way of backing his friend Netanyahu, apparently without formally contravening the letter of the law in Israel. The letter, no, the spirit – yes.
Since it is apparently legally impossible to prove that Adelson and Netanyahu are in breach of Israeli law concerning candidate financing, Labor parliamentary group chairman Eitan Cabel decided to submit a bill that will end these goings-on. In May 2014 Cabel, who was joined by another eight MKs, including members of all the coalition partners except for the Likud (each of whom has an axe to grind when it comes to Netanyahu and/or Adelson), submitted his bill for “Promoting and Protecting the Written Press in Israel.” The bill was passed by the Knesset in preliminary reading on November 12 by a vote of 43:23 – a nasty slap in the face for Netanyahu.
The bill does not call for Israel Hayom to be shut down, and does not even mention it by name. If passed into law it will merely create a situation that will ban the free distribution, or sale for a symbolic price (which is defined in the bill) of dailies of a certain size. In other words, the number of people who will read Israel Hayom will be limited more or less to the number of people willing to pay for it – just as is the case with regard to the other dailies.
Furthermore, Israel Hayom will be able to back Netanyahu (or anyone else, for that matter) to its heart’s content, but not in the form of a freely distributed propaganda sheet. Since Israel Hayom has managed, by offering high salaries and remuneration, to gather a team of serious journalists and columnists – including left-wingers like former Knesset members Prof. Amnon Rubinstein and Dr. Yossi Beilin, both of whose names appeared on ads placed in all the newspapers against the shutting down of Israel Hayom – there is no reason why it should not survive and thrive as a sold newspaper.
The problem is that neither side in the debate (or brawl) has been completely honest, and both sides are guilty of feigned innocence. Netanyahu’s own muttering, upon leaving the plenary hall last Wednesday, after the vote on the bill had been taken, to the effect that “the Knesset has shamed itself,” isn’t even worth commenting on.
In addition, one cannot deny that a law, which is worded in general terms but which everyone knows relates to a particular case, might be considered problematic in democratic terms, even though it should be pointed out that in the UK there is the institution of Private Bills, which apply to specific individuals or organizations, rather than the general public. But that is in the UK. Perhaps dealing with the problem by means of an amendment to the Israeli Party Financing Law would have been less problematic.
Either way, it is too early for Cabel and his colleagues to open champaign bottles. The battle is far from won, and the coalition leadership in the Knesset [especially House Committee chairman Yariv Levin (Likud)], can be counted on to ensure that the bill will be pigeonholed for a long while, by means of delay tactics in the House Committee.
In the meantime new elections are likely to be called, and it isn’t at all certain that it will be Netanyahu who will be called upon by the president to form the next government, with or without the backing of Israel Hayom. With Netanyahu out of the picture, it isn’t at all clear whether Sheldon Adelson will want to continue pouring hundreds of millions into a newspaper without a clear agenda.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.