The World Cup Lobby

The lobby for free broadcasts of the World Cup is immeasurably larger, more efficient and louder than the various social protest groups.

The Google search engine came up with 498 hits yesterday morning for the Hebrew keywords "Eitan Cabel and the World Cup broadcasts," but only 20 for "rally of patients with cancer of the large intestine in front of the Knesset." Those who remain unconvinced by these statistics are invited to take a look at the Maariv newspaper for the last two days. On Monday, the front page featured an editorial by the editor in chief, in which he called for an arrangement to enable free or cheap broadcasting of the World Cup. Yesterday, page 16 of the same paper ran a 10-line item describing a visit by the new health minister, Yaakov Ben-Yizri, with hunger strikers who are pleading for the government to include two drugs aimed at easing their condition, if not actually saving their lives, in the "health basket" of medications covered by the national health insurance plan.

In this case at least, Maariv is not alone. It is reflecting the priorities of society: The lobby for free broadcasts of the World Cup is immeasurably larger, more efficient and louder than the various social protest groups. The politicians, like newspaper editors, know what draws high ratings. Eitan Cabel has yet to warm his seat as minister responsible for the Israel Broadcasting Authority, but he has already come out with announcements, conducted interviews and made political contacts aimed at letting the public know that he is completely in favor of people being able to watch the world soccer championships for free.

Ben-Yizri has no chance of going up against Cabel on this playing field. While the new health minister has been pleading with the protesters to return to their homes and pledging to try to include the expensive medications in the health basket under certain circumstances, Cabel has gotten the ministers of finance and culture and sport, as well as the Union of Local Authorities, to join his team. They are all working to find a way to broadcast the games for free. And if that proves insufficient, Cabel will go to the prime minister.

There are many serious social problems competing for the public's attention and a place on the national agenda. It is clear that not all of them will be dealt with and that they are not all equally important, but is the deprivation of not being able to watch the World Cup the worst of them all? After all, the solution Cabel wants will ultimately involve state expenditure: He is looking for a way to meet the financial demands of the company that has the rights to broadcast the games without making the viewer pay. And if such an arrangement is reached, it will rely, in one way or another, on the public coffers.

According to one estimate, the amount that will satisfy the company with the World Cup concession (and the profit expectations of the satellite and cable channels competing for the right to broadcast the games) comes to about NIS 150 million. Is this expense, or even half of it, really the most urgent and essential one on the list of social needs competing for the government's attention?

The nature of many social problems is that they are sectorial: The suffering of the handicapped differs from that of the elderly, and the troubles of the mentally ill are not the same as those of single mothers. For this reason, the various groups have not been able to organize large, strong lobbies to fight for them. That is also the case with causes that involve ideological or political disputes (Israeli Arabs' demand for equal rights or the ultra-Orthdox parties' demand for an increase in child allotments). Sports fans, on the other hand, constitute a large group and have therefore succeeded in bringing their expectations to the center of public attention and building an efficient army of lobbyists who are well connected to the people in power. In addition, the country's decision-makers are also sports fans or belong to the sports lobby.

All this is human and commonly accepted and not unique to Israel; the connection between soccer and politics is well-known and all-embracing. This has been written, therefore, to remind this country's leaders, who were quoted yesterday as demanding that the broadcast charges be canceled, that there are additional issues that require their attention - and to make it clear just what our top priority is.