Citizens Mozes and Fishman

As the controllers of the local communications monopoly, and as partners in the local cable television cartel, and part owners of the one television station (Channel Two), Israel's citizens Mozes and Fishman consolidate in their hands more political power than any other Israeli.

The discussion currently under way in the Knesset's Economics Committee appears to be economic and legal in character. At first glance, a number of prosaic issues such as the merger of Channel Two franchise owners, the Channel Two tender offer, and the transition from a franchise to a license system at Channel Two, are under review in the committee's hearings.

Yet, it turns out that this technical, pedantic discussion constitutes perhaps the most important review being conducted nowadays about the character of Israel's democracy. This is a discussion that will determine who has sovereign authority in Israel: citizens of the state, who are represented by their elected delegates and protected by judges, or a certain citizen called Arnon Mozes, and his partner Eliezer Fishman.

Most average Israelis believe that the most important person in the country's public sphere is the prime minister. Here and there, a few think that the President of the Supreme Court is the number one man. Yet both groups are mistaken. Under circumstances in which there are not really political parties in Israel, and the government has no ability to rule and there is no cohesive civil society, Israel's democracy is, first and foremost, its public sphere. The place of Mozes and Fishman in this arena is virtually equivalent to that of a newspaper editor in a small town in an American western. As the controllers of the local communications monopoly, and as partners in the local cable television cartel, and part owners of the one television station (Channel Two) that effectively dominates the country's broadcast schedule, Israel's citizens Mozes and Fishman consolidate in their hands more political power than any other Israeli.

To tell the truth, citizens Mozes and Fishman have their hands on more political power than is wielded by any single citizen in any other democratic state. Years after most of the western states found a way to free themselves from the grip of the Hearsts and other media moguls, Israel remains captive to the whims of communications magnates - neither the local judge nor the local sheriff nor elected city officials are able to rein in their power.

And so even in days of bloodshed and shooting, the issue of citizens Mozes-Fishman is one of the most urgent questions sitting on the doorstep of Israel's democracy. It is an urgent question whose import far exceeds problems such as the influence exerted by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, or defining the limits of Supreme Court President Aharon Barak's judicial authority. It is far more urgent than questions about political parties' structures and the question of the electoral system. This is because so long as power in Israel remains consolidated, as it is now, in the hands of citizens like Mozes and Fishman, the state does not have, and cannot have, a plausible system of checks and balances. It does not stage, and cannot stage, a just and equitable political game. It does not support, and cannot support, genuine freedom of speech.

A government bill drafted in recent months is designed to deal with this question. The proposed bill holds that a person who controls a newspaper cannot have a significant controlling influence in a cable television company, and in Channel Two. He must be content with two out of these three. The proposed bill is conservative and minimal. It will not dismantle the monumental power bloc that has taken shape in the country's public sphere.

Yet it will impose some sort of constraint on this power structure. It will make clear that there is a limit. And it will guarantee that the print media monopoly, the near monopoly on television broadcasts and the cable cartel will not be held by the same pair of hands. The bill's adoption will mean that Israel's town hall will no longer be controlled by the same media barons.

Citizens Mozes and Fishman are not happy about this prospect. That is natural: A newspaper owner who doesn't hesitate to publish a 13-page report attacking a bitter business rival at a time when his rival's case is pending before the Supreme Court, is a person whose heady sense of his own power has crossed the line. So it's no wonder that such a man is not willing to accept his power being limited in any way. Like the newspaper editor in the small town in the American western, Mozes and Fishman will do anything it takes to protect their hegemony.

This being the case, Mozes and Fishman are not simply trying to rebuff the proposed law that is designed to restrain them; instead they are trying, along with other interested parties, to create a situation in which Channel Two will turn into a kind of on-the-air Yedioth Ahronoth, and in which the television station will be such a huge force that no public authority or regulator will have the wherewithal to monitor or put constraints on it.

The Economics Committee convenes at 8:30 A.M. today to discuss the proposed law. The decision it reaches in the end will not be a purely economic one. This is a decision pertaining to Israel's character as a free, democratic state. It is a decision that will reflect Israel's ability to defend itself against predatory consolidations of power. Just as it isn't easy for a journalist in Israel to raise his voice against citizens Mozes and Fishman, it is not easy for a Knesset member in Israel to raise his hand against the two. Precisely because this is the case, precisely because this case is so insufferable, there is an obligation to do just that.