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U.S. mogul’s paper with pro-Netanyahu political stand irks critics

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

POOL/REUTERS

For years, even before his first stint as Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has complained that "left-wing journalists" pry into his private life and conspire with political rivals to portray him as "shallow."

So Mr. Netanyahu was delighted back in 2007 when Sheldon Adelson – the conservative billionaire U.S. casino mogul who once said he's ready to commit $100-million to defeating President Barack Obama – launched a free daily, Yisrael Hayom, with a strikingly pro-Netanyahu line that quickly became Israel's most-read newspaper with nearly 40 per cent of the market.

Mr. Adelson's entry has recast the Israeli newspaper industry in much the same way as Rupert Murdoch once refashioned Fleet Street, and with a clear political agenda.

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Critics say Mr. Netanyahu has effectively become part of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign at Mr. Adelson's behest, creating a rift with Mr. Obama and damaging Israel's ability to work with the United States to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions.

While Mr. Adelson's newspaper is not the only right-leaning media organ, it is helped by its owner's willingness to operate at a loss, a luxury not available to other Israeli media.

Yisrael Hayom, or Israel Today, costs Mr. Adelson more than $30-million a year, according to a former business partner, Shlomo Ben Zvi.

Critics say the largesse has strings attached and blame Mr. Adelson's influence for tension between Israel and the United States.

Mr. Netanyahu, for example, raised eyebrows with his expansive welcome for Mr. Romney, who was accompanied by Mr. Adelson, in Jerusalem in June. Some opposition figures in Israel went so far as to accuse him of repaying Mr. Adelson for his support by provoking a crisis with the Obama administration over Iran in order to give a boost to the Romney presidential campaign.

Former defence minister Shaul Mofaz, in a rebuke to the Prime Minister from the Knesset podium in August, asked Mr. Netanyah whether he wanted to replace Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Mr. Obama.

"How low are you prepared to drag relations with our closest ally?" he said.

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"It seems that the Prime Minister is trying to intervene in a rude, blunt, unprecedented, wanton and dangerous manner in the United States election."

Mr. Netanyahu, rattled by the repeated criticism, has denied the accusations.

"The only thing guiding me is not the U.S. elections but the centrifuges in Iran," he said, when confronted during a television interview last month.

"It has nothing to do with American politics."

With an admiration for the Israeli leader that has earned it the sobriquet "Bibiton" ("Bibinews"), Yisrael Hayom, or Israel Today, gave Mr. Netanyahu a vital boost in the knife-edge 2009 election when he regained the premiership.

Since then, the newspaper has helped counter the negative coverage that continues to plague his administration.

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In July, for example, it ran a censored version of the suicide note left by Moshe Silman, an indebted Israeli who died after setting himself on fire during a cost-of-living protest.

The original note blamed Mr. Netanyahu and his finance minister. Their names were redacted from the photographs of the note published by the newspaper.

The close ties are also underscored by the hiring of Dror Eydar, a Yisrael Hayom columnist, as a paid adviser to Vice-Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, whose ministry, according to the newspaper, Haaretz, is effectively a unit of the Prime Minister's office.

Meanwhile Mr. Adelson, who declined requests for an interview, has made no secret of his ideological stance.

"My political leanings are far to the right," he told a media conference in 2010.

"Attila the Hun was too liberal for me."

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