How a pro-Bibi paper tilted Israeli voters to the right

The billionaire-funded daily Israel Hayom helped boost the right-wing bloc by two Knesset seats over three elections, a new study finds.

A man passes out the free daily newspaper Israel HaYom to passersby on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem on February 6, 2015. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
A man passes out the free daily newspaper Israel HaYom to passersby on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem on February 6, 2015. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Israel Hayom, the pro-Benjamin Netanyahu daily run by American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has repeatedly been accused of publishing propaganda to bolster the Israeli prime minister and his Likud party — and has even been taken to court several times based on these claims. But for the first time, a new study has quantified the paper’s political influence, finding that the daily helped to add at least two Knesset seats to the right-wing bloc during three of Israel’s elections since it began circulation.

The study, published by Guy Grossman of the University of Pennsylvania, Yotam Margalit of Tel Aviv University, and Tamar Mitts of Columbia University, examined the political influence of the paper, which has been handed out for free in Israel since 2007. The researchers found that there is a direct link between the rate of exposure to the newspaper and increased support for the right-wing bloc during the general elections of 2009, 2013, and 2015. They also concluded that the paper’s greatest impact was not in raising turnout among right-wing voters, but in swaying voters who had previously voted for other parties.

The study has several weak points, most important of which is that part of the methodology is based on comparing the content and exposure data of Israel Hayom to those of Yedioth Ahronoth, one of the country’s most popular dailies. But Yedioth Ahronoth is not a politically centrist newspaper that can be used for comparative analysis, as the researchers claim: it is largely an agenda-free newspaper that tends to support right-wing politicians if they serve the interests of its owner and editor-in-chief, Arnon (Noni) Mozes.

At its heart, the study is an attempt to understand the extent to which the wealthy class influences the political arena through their involvement in the media. The researchers note at the outset that those who own media outlets believe their political influence is more important than making a profit. The case of Israel Hayom, which has lost an estimated 1 billion shekels since its launch, is a clear example of this.

Right-wing bias

The researchers first set out to prove that the paper does indeed have a right-wing bias. For this purpose, every single text published across all Israel Hayom issues from its launch in July 2007 to the end of 2015 were entered into a computer program. The texts were compared to the political platforms of all the parties in Israel (except parties that identified themselves as “centrist”), in order to identify similarities between Israel Hayom’s political coverage and the parties’ platforms.

The findings were unequivocal: Israel Hayom had a far stronger right-wing bias than Yedioth Ahronoth, especially when it came to front page coverage and the paper’s opening spread. Israel Hayom also tended to use more of the terminology identified with the right (“Judea and Samaria” when referring to the occupied West Bank, “infiltrators” when referring to African asylum seekers), as opposed to those used by Yedioth Ahronoth (“settlements” and “asylum seekers”).

The study also found that there has been a change in Israel Hayom’s political bias over the years. When it was launched, the paper’s bias was similar to that of Yedioth Ahronoth, but as time went on, it took an increasingly right-wing slant while Yedioth remained the same. In 2015, the content on Israel Hayom’s front pages and opening spreads leaned to the right 27 percent more than Yedioth. The researchers noted that when it came to the news and opinion sections, the gap between the papers was smaller.

The research further revealed a bias in the issues highlighted by each newspaper. Israel Hayom preferred to focus on security issues such as Iran, attacks by Palestinians, and the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yedioth, on the other hand, focused on crime and economic issues.

American billionaire Sheldon Adelson meets with Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony at the Congress Hall in Jerusalem, 12 August 2007. (Flash90)
American billionaire Sheldon Adelson meets with Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony at the Congress Hall in Jerusalem, 12 August 2007. (Flash90)

Even an analysis of the headlines showed the former’s right-wing bias: when the researchers looked at how the two papers described Likud and Netanyahu, they found that Israel Hayom gave them more positive coverage than Yedioth, with no difference in the opinion sections.

Despite findings like these, Israel Hayom persistently denies its pro-Netanyahu bias in both public and court statements. The prime minister himself has also stated that he has no influence over what the newspaper publishes.

One paper, two mandates

Although Israel Hayom is distributed free of charge and in mass circulation — making it the most widely read newspaper in Israel — over the years, it has failed to gain any real journalistic reputation and is not considered an impactful newspaper. “Sara [Netanyahu] called it garbage. Not influential. Not worth it,” Miriam Adelson testified about Netanyahu’s wife’s attitude toward the paper. Adelson herself said, “The paper has existed for 10 years, we have not been given a single scoop.”

In order to understand Israel Hayom’s influence on voting patterns in Israel, the researchers looked at voting data in 25 localities and compared them to the rate of exposure to the paper, based on a survey by Kantar Media. The voting data was also compared to that from the four election campaigns prior to Israel Hayom’s circulation in those localities.

The researchers found that some areas had less of a tendency to vote for the right prior to Israel Hayom’s introduction. However, when there was high exposure to the paper in those areas, the trend reversed. In other words, there is a positive correlation between the exposure to Israel Hayom and change in voting patterns for the right-wing bloc (which included the Likud, Jewish Home, Yisrael Beiteinu, Moledet, Tzomet, and the National Union).

The study concluded that there is a clear causal link between exposure to Israel Hayom and voting for the right, and particularly Likud. In 2013, for example, each percentage point increase in exposure to the paper translated into a 0.22 percent increase in voting for the right-wing bloc.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man reads the Israel Hayom newspaper in Jerusalem, February 17, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man reads the Israel Hayom newspaper in Jerusalem, February 17, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

According to the researchers, Israel Hayom boosted the right-wing bloc by two seats across the 2009, 2013, and 2015 election campaigns. They estimate that these numbers are lower than the actual effect of the newspaper, due to the nature of the localized tests they ran. 

Segmentation by political party revealed that Likud was the main beneficiary of Israel Hayom’s influence, bringing it more votes at the expense of Shas, Labor, and Jewish Home, among others. The researchers also found a clear connection between high exposure to Israel Hayom, identification with Likud, and a decline in support for the centrist Kadima party, which in 2009 was Likud’s major electoral rival.

This finding is consistent with the claims made by Israel’s right-wing leaders for some time. “Israel Hayom is a Pravda [the former official paper of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party], a one-man newspaper,” Yamina Chairman and former minister Naftali Bennett once told the paper. Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked, who served as justice minister under Netanyahu, said the paper “bullied” her party: “Israel Hayom was not a right-wing newspaper. It served one person.” Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman also likened the newspaper to Pravda: “It is not an ideological newspaper, but a personal one that represents only one candidate.”

As such, many right-wing leaders backed the “Israel Hayom Bill,” which sought to ban the distribution of free newspapers. The bill passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset, and was one of the key reasons that led Netanyahu to dissolve the government and head to new elections in 2014-2015.

According to the study, Israel Hayom’s biggest impact was on localities where, prior to the newspaper’s appearance, voters were relatively balanced between the right and the left. It appears that swing voters, who previously read Yedioth Ahronoth and moved to Israel Hayom, were more affected by the circulation of the new daily than those who were exposed to the paper in localities where voters were already steadily voting for either the right or the left. The researchers found no correlation between exposure to the newspaper and an increase in voter turnout, but they did find a link between exposure to Israel Hayom and an improvement in how readers saw Netanyahu’s image.

The right-wing bias of those who read the paper, according to the study, stems mainly from their skepticism regarding the possibility of achieving peace with the Palestinians, as well as an opposition to negotiations with the Palestinian leadership and the evacuation of West Bank settlements. On the other hand, exposure to Israel Hayom had no effect on the economic positions of the readers.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on The Seventh Eye. Read it here.