Coalition Rift Over: Netanyahu and His Finance Chief Seal Public Broadcasting Deal

The prime minister agrees to let the new public broadcasting corporation start broadcasting on April 30, but gains a greater say over regulators.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.
Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon agreed Thursday that the new public broadcasting corporation will start broadcasting as scheduled on April 30 healing a rift that opened the night before.

The agreement was hammered out at a meeting between the heads of the parties in the governing coalition. As part of the deal, the coalition will promote a new communications bill already crafted, though Knesset sources say the legislation will not pass in its current form and the coalition parties will have to agree on changes.

The sticking points are the clauses giving significant control to the government, notably the communications minister, in appointing regulators who will supervise the entire media market. The Justice Minister also opposes the bill.

Netanyahu has long been criticized for trying to block the launch of the new corporation, which ostensibly would be freer from political meddling than the old broadcasting authority.

Kahlon said last week that he would support the establishment of one regulatory agency to oversee all broadcasting, but that freedom of expression and the new broadcasting corporation’s independence would be maintained.

On Thursday, Interior Minister Arye Dery mediated between the two sides after warning that the crisis could lead to an early election.

Knesset sources say the new bill will not be brought to a first reading before the Passover recess; instead, the government will wait for the summer session, which starts in May.

“The communications bill promoted by the prime minister is another stage in the ongoing incitement against the country’s democratic institutions. This is a benighted and cowardly bill that helps nothing but the satisfaction of Netanyahu’s idée fixe with the media,” said MK Ofer Shelah, the floor leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party.

“Netanyahu’s cabinet partners are aware of his fixation but yield to this strange beast at the expense of democracy and the employees of the outgoing broadcasting authority and the incoming broadcasting corporation, at the expense of us all. In Netanyahu’s crumbling coalition, everyone is pulling in his own direction and no one is dealing with the real problems facing the country,” Shelah added.

“That’s how it is when we have a prime minister who does nothing but attend to his fixation with the media. There are no security or economic issues, nothing except the corporation, the old broadcasting authority, the issue of who will control TV channels 10 and 2, and how to look after the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom” the free daily owned by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Earlier Thursday, MK Roy Folkman of Kahlon’s Kulanu party said “the prime minister can’t create spin at the expense of these employees, letting Kahlon be the one to shut down the authority. He’s shirking his responsibility.”

Folkman was speaking after the rift between Netanyahu and Kahlon broke out Wednesday Netanyahu wanted to postpone the new broadcasting corporation’s going on the air by six months.

“Leadership is measured at difficult moments as well as at easy ones, not only when Mobileye has an exit improving the local economy,” Folkman said, referring to the news this week that U.S. computer chip giant Intel was buying the Israeli company. “The broadcasting reform was promoted by Likud in the previous government and was meant to save hundreds of millions.”

Meanwhile, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev backed Netanyahu.

“I was glad to hear the prime minister yesterday taking responsibility for legislating the closure of the authority and the launching of the new corporation. I haven’t seen many leaders come forward and admit to making a mistake,” Regev said. “We decided to set up the corporation in the previous government and that was a mistake that needs to be corrected.”

On Thursday, Coalition Chairman David Bitan joined a demonstration by broadcasting-authority employees near the Prime Minister’s Office. Bitan, who proposed a bill to close the new corporation, won the support of the authority’s employees.

He said the Labor Party, the senior partner in the Zionist Union alliance which leads the opposition was siding with the firing of hundreds of employees by not supporting his bill.

MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union) said Netanyahu’s obsession with gaining control over the media and destroying the new corporation was the height of abuse of employees at both the old authority and new corporation.