What Israelis Are Reading

By | Feb 16, 2024

How does Israeli media cover U.S. affairs? Does the ongoing Gaza war and the broader conflict look different through the eyes of Israeli readers? There’s a lot to learn about Israel by looking through Hebrew language newspapers, news websites and TV channels. Welcome to “B’Ivrit: Moment’s Hebrew Language Media Roundup,” our new column that looks at the news through the eyes of Israeli media consumers.

Here’s a quick dive into some of the Israeli media you may have missed:

1. A rare day of good news

Israelis woke up to a breath of fresh air Monday. A people on edge since October 7, Israelis have grown accustomed to starting their day with morning radio shows and glancing at news alerts on their phones, only to hear about the tragedies they missed while sleeping: names of soldiers killed in combat, heartbreaking stories of hostage families, and endless political bickering.

Monday was different. Israelis woke up to hear that two of the hostages, Fernando Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, had been rescued from Gaza in a heroic special forces operation and are alive and well with their families at a hospital in central Israel. 

The story took over all news coverage, with special daytime TV news shows covering every detail, from grainy shots of helicopters transferring the two hostages to safety, to interviews with family members who had gotten a chance to meet with Fernando and Louis, now household names in Israel. This was followed by a victory lap of the Israeli Defense Forces, Israeli Police and the Shin Bet who recreated the story of their men entering Rafah by dark, arriving at the exact location, and rescuing the hostages under fire. 

The following day, the same exact photo was plastered over the front page of all Israeli dailies: Louis and Fernando in a tight group hug with three other family members who had already been released from Gaza in November. Haaretz, Israel’s liberal-leaning broadsheet, went with a matter-of-fact headline: “Security forces rescue from Gaza hostages  Fernando Marman and Louis Har.” Maariv, more on the tabloid side, declared: “Now you’re home.” Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s leading centrist publication, chose a quote from the special forces radio communications recording: “The diamonds are in our hands,” and the right-wing leaning Israel Hayom’s headline was simply: “The rescue from hell.”

Missing something? Readers in the United States may have noticed a lot of coverage of the heavy toll the rescue operation took on civilian lives in Rafah. The New York Times led with, “Israeli raid in Rafah rescues 2 hostages and kills dozens, officials say.” These dozens of Palestinians killed didn’t make it onto the front pages in Israel and were hardly mentioned in the day-long coverage of the event. Israeli media has chosen to tell the story of the Gaza war from the standpoint of its readers and viewers in Israel. And for them, this was all about Fernando and Louis.

2. Hostages or victory

This is the issue tearing apart Israeli society these days. 

The October 7 attack renewed Israel’s sense of national solidarity, and for a while it seemed to have mended the chasm that had ruptured Israeli society during the previous year.

But as the Gaza war enters its fourth month, solidarity is quickly fading away, replaced with a heartbreaking dilemma that falls, by and large, along political lines: Continue the war or save the hostages. It has been in the background ever since the first hostage release deal ended in November and it has now taken over the public discourse and is playing out all across the Israeli press. At its worst, the dilemma has led to scenes, such as that of two parents of hostages invited to a live TV studio debate on Israel’s public broadcaster KAN-11 that ended in tears. One family called on Netanyahu to do all he can to reach a hostage deal as soon as possible so their son can return home—the other urged him to keep fighting until Hamas is defeated. Both families’ loved ones have been held in Gaza tunnels by Hamas for more than 120 days.

Last Wednesday, Netanyahu announced that Hamas’s response to the latest deal was a non-starter. The front pages of all Israeli dailies told the story in giant headlines: “Abandoning the hostages will haunt us for generations,” warned Yediot Aharonot, above a photo of a group of women who were released from Hamas captivity and made their plea to Netanyahu in a prime-time press conference carried live on all channels.

Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu daily, chose an opposite slant, devoting its front page to a quote from Netanyahu claiming, “We are within reach of victory” and explaining that Hamas’s demands for the hostage swap are “delusional.”

The liberal Haaretz featured both sides, quoting Netanyahu and the former hostages, while centrist Maariv ran a photo of families holding pictures of their hostage family members and demanding their release.

This dynamic is repeated daily. Every evening, Israel’s major TV outlets report live from gatherings and protests of hostage families urging the government to do all in its power—including ceasing military activity—to get their daughters and sons, brothers and sisters, parents and friends back home. These reports are almost always coupled with a Netanyahu press conference or an interview with a cabinet minister defending the need to keep up the war and explaining how defeating Hamas on the battleground will lead to the release of the hostages.

Standing out is Channel-14, which could be compared to Israel’s version of Fox News, which has gained popularity since the October attacks. The ideologically driven platform has made a point of criticizing families of the hostages who protested Netanyahu’s refusal to accept a deal, and recently drew fire when a panelist on one of its news shows implied that Israel might have to sacrifice the lives of its hostages in order to win the war. “We need to understand that sometimes in order to beat terrorism and to prevent the next kidnapping and murder, we need to show skepticism, restraint, and willingness to absorb the cost, as high as it may be,” said Itamar Fleischman, a conservative pundit.

3. Watching Biden gaffes and Trump follies

Do Israelis care about American politics? Do they follow the ins-and-outs of presidential elections? Does the Israeli press even have the bandwidth to cover these issues with a war going on? The answer to all the above is a resounding Yes.

This is not to say that the Israeli press is busy counting Donald Trump’s primary wins or following Nikki Haley’s losses even in unchallenged races. But two themes are getting a lot of attention: Joe Biden’s age and memory issues, and Donald Trump—everything that has to do with Donald Trump.

Biden has gained a lot of popularity in Israel since the Gaza war broke out, but the Israeli press still pounces on opportunities to mock the president’s memory lapses and to question his cognitive capacities. There was not a single outlet that missed the news of Biden getting mixed up repeatedly in recalling meetings that never happened with deceased world leaders and referring to Egyptian president al-Sisi as the president of Mexico. His gaffes are also being used to explain away his criticism of the way Israel is conducting the war: the Haredi website Kikar Hashabbat chose this headline for their report on Biden: “Confused Joe got it wrong again, and strongly attacked Israel,” a reference to Biden’s comments on Israel at the same event, in which he called the attack on Gaza “over the top.”

The commentary accompanying many of the reports on Biden points out his struggle to regain his popularity and cites the polls showing his rival Trump in a slight lead.

When covering Trump, editors chose to skip their snarky headlines when reporting on Trump’s threat to encourage Russia to attack NATO countries that don’t fulfill their financial obligations. Ynet, a popular website from the Yediot Aharonot group, was among the few to take a critical stance toward the former president, with an article titled: “Concern in Europe over Trump’s attack on NATO.”   

4. Bracing for a Northern front

While the American and international press are focusing on the Gaza war, much of the attention in Israel is directed to the northern border and the chances of opening a new military front, this one against Hezbollah. In recent weeks, after months in which residents of Israel’s north remain displaced from their homes and with daily rocket attacks on the abandoned towns, the Israeli press has shifted its focus to the threat of a much bigger war brewing up north.

“A war in the north is unavoidable,” declared Israel Hayom’s commentator Oded Granot. The business publication Calcalist ran a piece predicting just how bad this next war will be, with “huge destruction of the kind Israel has never experienced, thousands of casualties in the frontlines and the home front, resulting in public panic.” Many outlets reported on wide-scale war preparation drills conducted by hospitals in the north, and the mayor of Nesher, a city adjacent to Haifa, told citizens to “buy generators and canned foods,” because emergency forces “won’t get to you in the first week.” These reports may explain in part the doom-and-gloom feeling in Israel, even as the Gaza war may be winding down.

5. It’s the economy

An aspect of the war largely invisible in the international press is the heavy economic price it is exacting from Israelis. On Sunday, headlines in all major publications were devoted to the damning report issued by Moody’s and its decision to downgrade Israel’s credit rating and warn of an even more negative outlook on the horizon.

The Israeli press, trying to explain the meaning of this downgrade to ordinary Israelis worried about their grocery bills, took a partisan approach to the issue. Many columnists criticized the Netanyahu government, and especially Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, for not putting in place an emergency economic plan to deal with increased defense spending, the shutdown of entire regions in Israel and the hit to business due to withdrawal of international investments and the shortage of workers, many of whom are called up for reserve service.

The coverage also touched on a deeper fault line in Israeli society—that between Israelis who are secular, traditional, or “national religious,” and the ,ultra-Orthodox who do not usually serve in the military and who have received increased government funding despite the country’s economic downturn.

Nothing demonstrated this disconnect more than the reactions in the Haredi press to Moody’s downgrade decision. Instead of focusing on the report, ultra-Orthodox outlets took issue with the fact that Netanyau put out a statement reacting to the decision during the Sabbath. “The statement caused insult and pain to tens of thousands Shabbat observants,” said an article in Hamevaser, a daily publication aligned with the United Torah Judaism party.

6. Super Bowl!

The game is obviously big news in America, but is the Israeli press watching?

Well, it’s hard to really report on a sport that does not exist in Israel (and don’t even try explaining the rules, or why it’s called “football” while football is “soccer”) not to mention that the game takes place in the middle of the night in Israel.

And yet, we live in a global village and news in America must be news in Israel, too. The angle? A Super Bowl ad campaign funded by the Israeli government calling for the release of 136 hostages still held by Hamas. (And yes, the Israeli press didn’t miss the typo in an early version of the ad sent to reporters. Apparently the word “Israel” was misspelled.)


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