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Netanyahu's Latest Quest for Control of Israel's Media

The prime minister's determination to silence criticism of him would be unthinkable in Western Europe, but it looks like he might actually succeed.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, October 31, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, October 31, 2016.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

At first, it seems patently absurd that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be willing to go to the brink of government collapse not over matters of war and peace, life and death, but – of all things – public broadcasting.

But that's the drama that played out over the past week in Israel, as a determined Netanyahu flexed his political muscles as both premier and communications minister, pouring most of his time and energy into preventing the emergence of a strong, free and independent public broadcasting body – which would, presumably, fulfill its journalistic duty of criticizing the government that holds its purse strings.

The fact that a major political crisis could be sparked over a handful of government-funded television and radio stations is especially hard to fathom for Americans, where commercial television reigns supreme. While certain sectors in the United States would certainly mourn PBS or NPR if they ceased to exist, it wouldn’t exactly rock the Beltway.

Europeans are perhaps better placed to understand the drama and outraged reaction to Netanyahu’s political gamesmanship. Strong and healthy publicly and generously funded media, unhampered by commercial concerns – particularly when it comes to news – is considered a backbone of many European nations, with Britain’s BBC being the jewel in the crown.

A situation in which a British prime minister would clutch the Communications Ministry tightly to his own chest and use that power to assert influence over regulation of the media and create a landscape to tamp down criticism of his government? Unimaginable.  

The seeds of the current crisis lie in the struggling Israel Broadcasting Authority, born when the state was founded in 1948. For more than 40 years, the IBA held a monopoly as the only television channel in the country, which comfortably established it as the “national campfire” around which the country gathered and whose news department essentially dictated the national agenda.

Because it was conceived and created in a young and vulnerable state with powerful politicians and wielded such tremendous power, the IBA was heavily regulated and supervised. Government interference into its operation – particularly when it came to the hiring and firing of senior staff – has been legendary.

Its days of glory came to a screeching halt in the 1990s with the advent of commercial radio and television licenses, cable and satellite television and then the internet. As a many-layered government body hampered by strong unions that protected jobs and kept costs high, the IBA found it impossible to compete in the ratings war. As commercial operations have thrived, it has been marginalized into being the stuffy grandfather of the Israeli television and radio world.

After numerous attempts at IBA reform were stymied by the unions, in 2014 then-Communications Minister Gilad Erdan – an up-and-coming potential future leader in Netanyahu’s Likud party – invested his energy and prestige into ushering through a law that would bring an era of historic change. Erdan announced that the IBA would be put out of its misery and reconstituted into a new sleek public broadcasting entity: The Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation would emerge from its withered husk.

The legislation structuring the new corporation would make it both more cost-efficient and less susceptible to the influence of powerful politicians than the IBA. Hundreds of employees busily working toward its debut for more than a year are now horrified that the corporation – which has already been called Kan, complete with a cool logo – may never see the light of day.

But a careful look at the Israeli prime minister’s unrelenting crusade to exert control over the media in order to ensure his political survival shows that his efforts to kill a public broadcaster at the last moment – into which millions of shekels have already been invested – should come as no surprise.

The chain of events that led to the fall of Netanyahu’s previous government were sparked in large part by a proposed law that would have lessened Netanyahu’s influence on the country’s print media due to the fact his political patron, Sheldon Adelson, owns and operates the largest circulation newspaper, Israel Hayom. When the so-called “Adelson bill” got dangerously close to passing, Netanyahu chose to dissolve his government.

Following the March 2015 election, Netanyahu ensured the end of such mischief by keeping the communications portfolio to himself, his power and control magnified by the fact he had made it a condition for his governing coalition partners to agree with communications-related decisions. He abruptly fired Erdan’s director general in the ministry, Avi Berger, took steps to financially weaken commercial television broadcasters and approved the merger of telecom giant Bezeq and satellite TV provider YES, whose controlling shareholder is his friend Shaul Elovitch. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Netanyahu and his wife have subsequently been enjoying increasingly glowing coverage on Elovitch’s influential news site, Walla.

Haaretz’s Amir Teig summed up the moves in a June 2015 article, “How Netanyahu gained control of Israel’s communications sector,” noting: “Strong controlling shareholders, powerful executives, investors and ordinary workers who generally believe themselves to be in control of their businesses or careers came to understand their error. Israel’s new communications czar is more political and survival-driven than ever and more aggressive than any of his predecessors.”

This set the stage for Netanyahu’s boldest move yet more than a year later – aborting the new public broadcaster.  

After months of hints, leaks and statements by surrogates, he finally admitted it publicly on Monday, in his speech at the opening of the Knesset's winter session.

Netanyahu declared his intention to rid the world of the nascent corporation, instead “rehabilitating” the shrunken and hobbled IBA. As he stood on the podium with a half-smile, it almost seemed as if even the communications minister himself didn’t believe the reason he was giving for his decision: cost cutting. Killing the new broadcaster, he contended, would save the country millions.

Netanyahu’s henchmen have been more upfront about his motives. Netanyahu’s primary attack dog on the issue, Coalition Chairman David Bitan, said the corporation had to die after being “hijacked by people with a left-wing, antigovernment agenda, and they want to implement that agenda. It is completely clear to us that this broadcasting authority will be the broadcasting authority of the staunch left.”

There was only one ingredient in the formula that Netanyahu didn’t count on. In a demonstration of political backbone, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (also head of Kulanu) decided to position himself as the broadcaster’s white knight and do what he could to save the broadcaster.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, September 2016.Credit: Kobi Kantor

Kahlon and Netanyahu have clashed over the fate of the broadcaster before, with Kahlon fighting – but ultimately acquiescing – to efforts to postpone its debut.

If it weren’t for Kahlon’s decision to maintain his opposition this week, signaling that he might just be willing to bring Netanyahu’s coalition down over the issue, eulogies for the unborn public broadcaster would already be prepared and it would be closed next week.

Clearly uninterested in facing an election over the issue as he did last year, Netanyahu – at least for now – blinked. The Netanyahu-Kahlon standoff resulted in a decision Wednesday to postpone a decision, using a classic Netanyahu stalling tactic. A joint statement by Kahlon and Netanyahu announced that a task force, with representatives of both politicians, would be formed to try to resolve the issue and submit its recommendations in three weeks.

But Kahlon’s victory is being viewed as temporary. He may have won a minor battle, but Netanyahu is clearly determined to win the war.

The prognosis is bad for the new broadcasting corporation as any kind of robust entity. It is likely that Netanyahu and Kahlon will settle their differences on a spreadsheet and announce a compromise that might be fiscally sound but will leave Israeli democracy far poorer.

Odds are high that coming months will see the destruction of the corporation – or, at best, see it somehow folded into the existing public broadcaster. And Netanyahu will be able to add another docile and dependent media entity in the form of a “rehabilitated” IBA to his trophy case.