Original Author: Isabel Kershner
Israel’s military command? Part of a liberal-left “deep state.” The country’s judiciary? Mafioso. And the thousands of Israelis protesting a polarizing judicial overhaul plan introduced by the far-right government? Privileged, elitists — and anarchists.
These are only some of the divisive messages driven home recently by presenters on Israel’s Channel 14 television station, a formerly small and niche outlet that has rapidly turned into a major influencer in the public discourse of a country that is deeply divided and in turmoil.
On Tuesday, as the Supreme Court considered whether to block an effort by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reduce judicial power, an effort that has angered many Israelis and sparked months of street protests, Channel 14 presented the court as an opponent of democracy.
“We are in a situation right now where these 15 people are going to establish a fascist oligarchy,” said one Channel 14 analyst, referring to the court’s 15 judges.
Those views reflected the distinctly right-wing bent of Channel 14, whose audience ratings have skyrocketed in recent months as political tumult gripped the country.
Prime-time ratings for its flagship programs have, on occasion, outstripped those for Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, as well as for mainstream commercial channels.
“There are three other channels broadcasting news and they are on the left of the map. We are on the right,” said Hallel Bitton Rosen, the channel’s military correspondent. “The difference is we don’t hide it.”
The conservative outlet is brash and unapologetic about its support for Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the most right-wing and religiously conservative in the country’s history, much as Fox News was a booster for President Donald J. Trump in the United States.
Fans say they welcome the addition of Channel 14, which began broadcasting nearly a decade ago with a mandate to focus on Jewish heritage, to a media landscape they have long viewed as overwhelmingly liberal and biased.
It sees as its audience the more traditional Jews who make up much of Mr. Netanyahu’s loyal base, nationalist settlers in the occupied West Bank and disgruntled residents of the geographical and socioeconomic margins of the country, far from the prosperous high-tech hub of Tel Aviv that is home to many liberal Israelis.
Critics of the channel say it not only reflects the country’s political and social rifts, but it also acts as an echo chamber, fueling and entrenching divisions as a fight over the government’s judicial plan exacerbates the various fault lines running through Israeli society.
“We have a mouth now — and ears,” said Geula Naveh, 71, a Channel 14 devotee who joined the audience on a recent weeknight for a live broadcast of “The Patriots,” a contentious panel discussion of the day’s events.
“Here I get to hear the truth,” Ms. Naveh said of the channel. “I’m addicted. I watch it morning and night, and while I’m cooking.”
She was accompanied by her son Nir Naveh, a financial risk manager.
The Navehs, who are ardent supporters of Mr. Netanyahu, said they had experienced racism and been looked down on as Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern descent by Ashkenazi Jews, who are of European stock and have long made up Israel’s elite.
Reflecting a sentiment among many Netanyahu supporters that the hawkish government that came to power late last year is payback for years of slights by liberal Israelis, Mr. Naveh described the phenomenon of Channel 14 as “a microcosm of what is happening in society.”
Mr. Netanyahu, who is standing trial on charges of corruption, has long accused the mainstream Israeli media of persecuting him and his family. Two of the three criminal cases he is fighting involve accusations of impropriety in his pursuit of positive media coverage. He has denied any wrongdoing.
While Mr. Netanyahu has frequently granted interviews to foreign networks in recent months, he has all but boycotted most Israeli channels. But he has given seven interviews to Channel 14 since last October, according to a study published by Seventh Eye, an Israeli media review.
The controlling shareholder of Channel 14, Yitzchak Mirilashvili, is a Russian-born Israeli investor in VK.com, a large Russian social network. He is the son of Michael Mirilashvili, an Israeli billionaire who was born in Georgia under the Soviet Union and is the owner of Watergen, a tech company that produces drinking water from air.
Mr. Netanyahu lauded Watergen technology in a speech at a policy conference of AIPAC, the American pro-Israel lobby group, in 2018 — the same year that a previous Netanyahu-led government introduced regulatory and licensing changes allowing Channel 14 to morph into a news channel from a Jewish heritage channel while exempting it from financial obligations imposed on other news channels, according to critics.
A year before that, Watergen was one of four Israeli start-ups that Mr. Netanyahu presented to the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, who had come to Israel to discuss the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, including a shortage of drinkable water. All that has raised questions about Mr. Netanyahu’s seeming promotion of the company and the channel.
Both Mirilashvilis tend to keep a low profile. A spokesman for Channel 14, Omer Meiri, said: “We abide by the terms of our license. We act only according to the law.”
“I don’t know of any government intervention in the channel,” he said, adding, “I don’t decide where the prime minister chooses to be interviewed.”
The channel, which has its headquarters in an industrial zone in the city of Modiin, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, garners its highest ratings for combative programs like “The Patriots.”
“People shout at each other at prime time,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, who heads a media reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Jerusalem, describing Channel 14’s programming. “I call them the dopamine programs: They give the audience the same psychological mood they are used to from social media.”
“They get a very one-sided view of reality,” she added. “There is not even any pretense at being balanced. There is no dedication to facts and no apologies for lying.”
A media watchdog group called Bodkim found that Channel 14 broadcast 70 false or misleading claims between August 2022 and this April, including peddling conspiracy theories aimed at delegitimizing those protesting against the government’s judicial overhaul out of fear for the future of Israeli democracy.
Commentators have portrayed the protests, without any proof, as being supported by the C.I.A. and the protesters as the descendants of Jews who refused to fight against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto uprising during World War II.
In one recent controversy, a panelist suggested it was time for the release from prison of Yigal Amir, the Jewish extremist who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, leading major companies to pull advertising from the channel. The channel apologized and said the panelist would not appear again, but also said it would not allow companies to advertise with it unless they agreed to not use their clout to stifle what it said was freedom of expression.
A popular talk show presenter, Shimon Riklin, hosted a contentious rabbi who once led the trashing of hundreds of television sets as a protest against TV culture.
Live on air, the rabbi accused the “leftist” Labor Zionists who founded the Israeli state of abandoning Jews in the Holocaust. Mr. Riklin has argued that the Israeli military is “too moral” and tries too hard to avoid harming uninvolved civilians.
The head of the foreign news desk, Nati Langermann, who was visiting the studios from his base in Paris recently, said, “There is still a feeling here of being in the minority and of being an underdog.” The right wing, he said in an interview, “won a majority at the ballot box, but in the world of media we remain almost alone.”
Some Channel 14 staff say they do not aspire to be balanced.
“A lot of people who identify with the values of the channel — patriotism, love of the land, heritage and Judaism — felt their voice was missing from the media,” said Mr. Bitton Rosen, the military correspondent. “Channel 14 entered that vacuum.”
Mr. Bitton Rosen, who used to work in the restaurant business, added: “If you go to a restaurant, there’s a menu. We put our menu at the entrance. Whoever wants to eat is welcome.”
Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.