Kahlon Holds the Keys to Saving Public Broadcaster From Netanyahu's Hands

There's no rational explanation for the prime minister's gluttony for controlling media outlets that aren’t rich in ratings or influence. But even through some of his allies are rising against him, Netanyahu refuses to compromise.

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Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The Knesset Channel has been broadcasting to our television screens for about 12 years. Also known as Channel 99, it’s honest and straight as a ruler, balanced as sea level, high-quality, original, enlightening and educational. It’s an ideal screen saver for sick days and a welcome refuge from the outpouring of reality shows. There’s only one problem: It’s run by Channel 2 News.

Communications Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to ditch the current operator in favor of one who’s friendlier and more convenient. The name being bruited in the Knesset is his billionaire friend Shaul Elovitch, who also owns Bezeq and the Walla internet news site, and whose activities on behalf of Netanyahu and his wife were described here at length a few months ago by reporter Gidi Weitz. The method: passing a law that will enable Walla to bid in the upcoming tender.

The Knesset House Committee spent the entire week discussing this bill. One committee member from a coalition party tried to change the above provision, which has been nicknamed “the Shaul clause.” At the height of the debate, he received an angry telephone call from one of the prime minister’s senior associates. “Drop it,” the caller ordered. “Bibi isn’t willing under any circumstances to have News 2 continue there.” The Knesset member in question asked to remain anonymous.

About a month ago, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit forbade Netanyahu to be involved in any way in any issue directly or indirectly connected to Elovitch. This responsibility was given instead to Minister without Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi, a close associate of Netanyahu’s; truly an impressive firewall. Now some people are asking whether Netanyahu’s active involvement, personally or via members of his staff, in discussions of the Knesset Channel’s fate do not conflict with this ban.

Netanyahu’s gluttony for controlling media outlets that aren’t exactly rich in ratings or influence has no rational explanation. Just this week, this tendency spurred two coalition allies, a key minister from his own party and, on Wednesday, even President Reuven Rivlin to rebel against him. Rivlin, a former speaker of the Knesset, remembers Netanyahu’s discomfort with the Knesset Channel from back when he held that job.

Habayit Hayehudi leader Neftali Bennett and Likud Minister Gilad Erdan are trying to convince their peers in cabinet to vote against Netanyahu's decision to put off the opening of Israel's new public broadcaster, from October sometime in 2018. Bennett strives for a compromise, to delay the opening by three months. Meanwhile, Netanyahu insists on 15 months. He wants to make sure it's irrelevant.

The key lies in the hands of Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister and Kulanu party chairman. To keep funding both the IBA and the new corporation simultaneously, the treasury will have to lay out between 450 and 500 million shekels ($117 million to $130 million). But nobody, not even Netanyahu, can force the finance minister to consent to this; he’s the one who signs the checks.

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