Analysis

Netanyahu Runs Amok in His Attack on Freedom of the Press

Fortunately, his partners in the governing coalition are waking up to his stifling of democracy.

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, in the Knesset, July 19, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

People used to say about Yitzhak Rabin that if he had to choose between being prime minister and defense minister, the two posts he filled until he was assassinated, he would have chosen the latter, the one most precious to him. All obvious differences aside, the same thing might be said about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu given the time, emotion and energy he invests in the most esoteric of his abundant portfolios – the Communications Ministry.

Well, Communications Minister Netanyahu’s mood recently hasn’t just been his typical obsession to control, smash, run over, weaken and strike at the pockets of Israel’s free press. It’s simply a mood of running amok.

Every schoolchild knows that Netanyahu’s cynical move to postpone the launch of the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation by a year and a half (a move in which he was joined by Histadrut union chief Avi Nissenkorn for his own reasons), is designed both to give the corporation an undignified burial and leave the weakened, needy and dying Israel Broadcasting Authority in place.

In addition, there’s Netanyahu’s attempt to take over the Knesset television channel via a dubious law born in sin by a committee with vested interests appointed by Speaker Yuli Edelstein. And it’s impossible not to mention Netanyahyu’s support, for considerations personal, vengeful and based on vested interests, for a bill to restrict marketing content proposed by MK Miki Rosenthal (Zionist Union), a reasonable and worthy bill that has apparently been frozen forever.

Netanyahu’s efforts on these issues are sweeping. His interlocutors, ministers and others have the impression that nothing affects him more viscerally than bringing down yet another rival in the media market, or paving the way for a media ally and granting him beneficial terms. Usually these are interdependent. He focuses on these goals as if his political life depended on it.

On Tuesday it looked as if the prime minister and communications czar had gone a step too far. His decision to postpone the start of the Public Broadcasting Corporation’s operations, along with events in the Knesset committee that discussed the Knesset channel, led his coalition partners to very belatedly realize what was going on. We can detect the first signs of an uprising.

Former Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, the original author of the reform to the Israel Broadcasting Authority, has attacked Netanyahu’s decision on the corporation. He called it straight: an attempt to kill public broadcasting. In Netanyahu’s eyes that’s no less than an attempted coup.

Later, Habayit Hayehudi chief and Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted: “The picture has become clearer to me over the past few hours. The accumulation of laws restricting the media raises deep concerns over the future of freedom of expression. Free media is the basis of democracy.”

Bennett, for the second time this week, showed the leadership and statesmanship that are so lacking in the man who heads the government (the first time was when Bennett attacked the words of a religious-Zionist darling, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein). The head of the Kulanu party, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, also made a statement, generally regarded as too feeble and mainly technical, against the postponement of the Public Broadcasting Corporation.

Even if the resistance is belated, it’s a good thing it has come. Bennett, Kahlon and all the rest voluntarily signed a clause in the coalition agreement promising not to vote in the Knesset against the Communications Ministry’s initiatives.

Only now, 15 months after the coalition formed, do they realize what was clear the moment the clause appeared along with Netanyahu’s decision to keep the communications portfolio for himself.

The preservation of Israeli democracy is now in their hands. Netanyahu has no leverage over them.