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Newspaper's sale to push Israeli media to the right

Likely sale of respected left-of-centre daily to right-wing media owner is likely to reduce media criticism of Netanyahu policies.

TEL AVIV // The prospective sale of Israel's third-largest newspaper to a right-wing Israeli who lives in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank has sparked concern among analysts and left-wing activists of growing settler control over the country's media.

A company owned by the cash-strapped Israeli businessman, Nochi Dankner, announced this week it is selling the financially struggling Maariv to Shlomo Ben-Zvi. Mr Ben-Zvi already owns a smaller newspaper and a cable television station, both of which are known for hardline religious views.

The sale, expected to be finalised next month for 85 million shekels (Dh78m), seems to be the latest step by settlers and their supporters to gain influence to advance Israel's expansion in territory wanted by Palestinians for a future state, activists said.

"The chance to profit financially from this deal is low, so it looks like they got the Maariv logo for a cheap price to market pro-settler views," said Yariv Oppenheimer, the director of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now.

Indeed, while Israeli newspapers have experienced the same decline in readership as their counterparts in many other countries, they still have a wide following among Israelis. Members of Israel's parliament often conduct discussions on issues raised by the media, and parliamentary debates frequently include quotes from news items, editorials and comment pieces.

The pro-settler right wing's influence on Israeli media last received a significant boost in 2007, when the Jewish-American gambling magnate, Sheldon Adelson, introduced the Israel Hayom newspaper, credited with significantly exacerbating the financial woes of its rivals by being given out for free, leading to industry moves such as the sale of Maariv.

Mr Adelson, ranked by Forbes as the world's 14th richest person, is a major financial supporter of Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and a well-known backer of the Republican Party in the United States. Indeed, Israel Hayom is often referred to as the "Bibiton" - a play on the nickname of Mr Netanyahu, Bibi - because of its open support for the prime minister's pro-settler policies and often hostile views on Palestinians.

Israel Hayom has taken advantage of mainstream Israeli newspapers' financial troubles by offering its issues for free at news-stands, road intersections and the main streets of many Israeli cities.

That's helped catapult it to become Israel's most popular newspaper. Some 38 per cent of Israelis read Israel Hayom on an average weekday as compared to 36 per cent of readers for Yediot Ahronoth and 11 per cent for Maariv, according to a survey by the Israeli market researcher TGI in July.

Haaretz, an Israeli daily newspaper considered left of centre, has only about 7 per cent of Israelis reading it on an average weekday, but is considered more influential than its readership because it is mainly read by the business, political and social elite in Israel, and its English-language website is often chosen by non-Hebrew speakers abroad over the sites of other Israeli papers.

Analysts said the sale of the 65-year-old Maariv will likely reduce media coverage critical of key policies of the current government.

"This is bad news for the left and will likely have chilling effects on left-wing opinions in the media," said Zvi Reich, a media researcher at Israel's Ben-Gurion University. He added that the political right "takes better advantage of financial difficulties in the media industry to leverage itself".

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said that exerting influence over a newspaper such as Maariv, which has a daily circulation of 150,000, could help settlers influence public opinion in their bid to avoid or delay as much as possible any plans for the evacuation of West Bank settlements. "The settlers had resolved after the Gaza [settlement] evacuations to take all kinds of means to avoid a further disengagement," he said, referring to Israel's 2005 removal of its civilians and soldiers from the Gaza Strip.

Mr Ben-Tzvi, a resident of Efrat, a settlement located between the West Bank towns of Hebron and Bethlehem, is reported to have become an adversary of Mr Adelson following a joint business venture that turned sour. Some commentators said he may try to use Maariv to compete with Mr Adelson over right-wing readership.

Maariv may not be the last media target of the political right.

One of Israel's two main privately owned television stations, Channel 10, is facing financial collapse and some commentators have speculated that one of its main shareholders, Ronald Lauder, may increase his 25 per cent holding in the channel.

Mr Lauder, an American billionaire and an heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, is viewed as being close to Mr Netanyahu and some analysts say that while he appears to have avoided intervening in the station's news coverage, that could change should his shareholding be enlarged.