As politicians intensify their campaigning for Israeli snap elections, an equally ferocious battle is playing out between two media tycoons -- a friend and a foe of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In one corner is Jewish-American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has effectively given Netanyahu a free rein to use his Israel HaYom newspaper for electioneering ahead of the March polls.
Adelson, an 81-year-old casino magnate with an estimated fortune of around $40 billion, is one of the biggest contributors to the US Republican Party.
Since Israel HaYom was set up in 2007, the freesheet has become the most widely circulated newspaper in the Jewish state.
In the opposite corner is Arnon Moses, 61, an Israeli media mogul who owns the top-selling Yediot Aharonot and its sister news website Ynet — and who is firmly opposed to Netanyahu winning a fourth term in office.
Since Israel HaYom’s emergence, Yediot Aharonot has lost its years-long dominance of the Israeli newspaper industry.
Israel HaYom is read by 39.3 percent of Israeli newspaper readers and Yediot Aharonot by 34.9 percent.
“There is a real duel between the two tycoons which is playing out on both the economic and political fronts, not least because Yediot Aharonot has adopted a position very critical of Bibi (Netanyahu) in the last few years,” said Amit Lavie-Dinur, a communications specialist at the Interdisciplinary Centre near Tel Aviv.
With the election campaign shining a spotlight on the lifestyle of the prime minister and his wife, the views held by commentators at the rival media have stood in stark contrast.
– Netanyahu cries conspiracy –
After Yediot columnists railed against Likud party leader Netanyahu, the premier accused Moses of being the “brain” behind a perceived “defamation” campaign against him and his wife Sara.
Voters have heard a barrage of stories about the recycling habits of the Netanyahus as well as their dizzying domestic cleaning bills and penchant for pistachio ice cream paid for by the public.
“The goals of this businessman, whose long arm reaches into the media, is to bring down the Likud government that I am leading, to cause the closure of Israel HaYom and to restore Yediot Aharonot’s control over the press,” Netanyahu wrote on Facebook.
Veteran Yediot columnist Nahum Barnea accused the premier of being “paranoid”, saying he should be put into a “psychiatric ward”.
Moses himself thought better of weighing in on the debate — but he hardly needs to.
His influence was felt in parliament in November where, in the face of firm opposition from Netanyahu, lawmakers backed a preliminary bill to ban Israel HaYom’s free distribution.
The newspaper accused Moses of using underhand tactics to ensure approval for the bill, which passed by 43 to 23 within the 120-member parliament.
Even rightwing politicians voted to stop the daily circulating free of charge in a sign of the controversy surrounding a paper so closely aligned with the premier that it earned the moniker “Bibiton” — a play on the premier’s nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper.
Labour member of parliament Eitan Cabel, who authored the bill, compared Israel HaYom to a “pamphlet promoting a personality cult that might be seen in North Korea.”
The paper responded by denouncing Cabel as an “agent” of Moses.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, both cabinet hardliners, likened Israel HaYom to Pravda, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece in the former Soviet Union.
– Saving the ‘Bibiton’? –
Commentators such as Yossi Verter in Haaretz newspaper have said it was Netanyahu’s fury over the bill that prompted him to call a snap election.
Second and third readings have been put on hold until after the polls.
“Until proven otherwise, the only conclusion we can draw is that Netanyahu dragged the country into unnecessary elections to save the newspaper … from the danger of legislation that would stop it from being given out for free,” Verter wrote.
Despite the furore, observers doubt the media war will have a major impact on the outcome of the polls.
“Israelis are savvy enough to understand that what they read in the two rival newspapers is biased towards or against Netanyahu,” said Gil Hoffman, politics correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.
“They know to take everything those newspapers report with a grain of salt.”