As the contest for who will lead the nation takes shape, the classic right-wing charge of pervasive, hostile media bias was splashed in giant tabloid type across the front page of the daily Israel Hayom last Friday. The headline read: “Netanyahu: The Media is Campaigning to Bring the Left to Power.” The Friday edition of an Israeli paper is the equivalent of a thick Sunday edition in America; print newspapers are still very popular in Israel, and Israel Hayom is one of the two most popular papers. You might just sense a contradiction here: The most-read headline of the week in one of the country’s most influential news sources carried Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s accusation that the media is deliberately trying to take power from him and give it to the left. The irony certainly wasn’t intentional. The undeclared purpose of Israel Hayom is to promote Bibi Netanyahu. “Newspaper” in Hebrew is iton; Israel Hayom has gained the nickname Bibiton. A vast army of people wearing red overalls hand it out for free everyday, everywhere in Israel. For the newspaper’s owner, American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, making money isn’t the goal.
Adelson’s penchant for giving vast sums in hopes of buying victory for conservative candidates is all too well known in the United States. In 2012, according to the Center for Public Integrity, he and his wife donated $150 million to Republican efforts, $93 million of it to conservative super PACs, and reportedly invested $100 million in conservative presidential and senatorial candidates. His attitude toward elections could be summed up as “one dollar, one vote.” Profligate as he is, though, in the U.S., he’s only one of the mostly conservative mega-givers to which President Barack Obama’s tech-driven mass fundraising efforts provided at least part of an answer the presidential campaign.
In Israel, on the other hand, Adelson’s influence is uniquely pernicious. Israel’s campaign-funding laws are at the far pole from America’s. “Israel adopted all the possible restrictions,” says Hebrew University economist Momi Dahan, co-author of an Israel Democracy Institute study on election financing and corruption. Only individuals may contribute, and the maximum a person can give a particular candidate or party is about $600 in an election year. Anonymous donations are illegal. Corporations aren’t people, and are barred from giving. So, for that matter, are unions and other organizations. And only Israeli citizens may make campaign donations. That rule makes sense. A small country is particularly vulnerable to attempts by wealthy foreigners to influence its elections. To make up for the restrictions, the state funds campaigns generously.