New Public Broadcaster Isn’t Dead, but Netanyahu Is Trying to Kill It

His delay of its launch sets off political storm and could force him to backtrack.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a special cabinet meeting to mark Jerusalem Day on June 16, 2016.
Mark Israel Selam, Jerusalem Post, Pool photo

Israeli couch potatoes looking forward to that day in October when the new government-owned Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation was due to take over from the much loathed Israel Broadcasting Authority got a nasty surprise this week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also acts as communications minister, reached an agreement on Monday with Histadrut labor federation Chairman Avi Nissenkorn behind the backs of everyone else involved, to delay the transition until 2018.

The agreement created a storm across the political spectrum, with everyone from Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to Education Minster Naftali Bennett condemning the delay. Politicians from the left, including MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union), came out against the idea.

Even the journalists unions, which belongs to the Histadrut, lashed out at the delay.

Bennett called the decision a blow to freedom of the media. Kahlon, who said he wasn’t informed of the talks, said he wouldn’t allocate from the 400 million shekels ($104 million) it will cost to keep IBA open for another 15 months.

Not matter, on Wednesday the Communications Ministry was already circulating draft legislation to the Public Broadcast Law that would delay the deadline for launching IPBC broadcasts from September 30 to January 2018.

The battle over public broadcasting is far from over and there are at least three possible outcomes.

The first is that Netanyahu and Nissenkorn will capitulate and allow IPBC to launch as originally scheduled.

There are reports that Nissenkorn himself was beginning to have second thoughts, but the prime minister – despite public statements to the contrary – has looked askance at the broadcast reform, which was initiated by his political rival Gilad Erdan, when the later was communications minister.

When Netanyahu took over the portfolio, he quietly worked to undermine the IPBC by delaying approval for appointments to its governing council. When those behind-the-scenes efforts failed, he then began talks with Nissenkorn.

A complete capitulation by the two would have its disadvantages.

Netanyahu and Shlomo Filber, the director general of the Communications Ministry and a Netanyahu ally, both insisted that IPBC wasn’t ready to go on the air in October. IPBC CEO Eldad Koblenz, who hadn’t been told about the Netanyahu-Nissenkorn talks, denied that, but the fact is the new corporation would have preferred waiting another three months, since October is the High Holiday season and television viewership is low.

If the October launch date is preserved, the IPBC’s eight radio stations should have no trouble going live with a full complement of programming. A tender for a contractor to provide advertising sales and web operations should be ready as well.

However, the two television channels are unlikely to be ready to provide the quality programming they promised immediately. Instead, Channel 1 will be showing independent productions like documentaries and exposes and programing produced by Education television, like Erev Hadash. The rest of the schedule will be filled out with old programming from Channel 1. There will be no news programming.

The second outcome is that the IPBC never gets off the ground at all. Supporters of the broadcast reforms say this week’s decision to delay the launch and keep the IBA open is really as an interim maneuver before Netanyahu acts to shut down the IPBC altogether.

“Delaying it until 2018 is a joke,” said one senior official involved in the new company this week, who asked not to be identified. “If they put it off till 2018, there won’t be a corporation at all.

As the reaction to this week’s announcement showed, this would be a fraught process, but he could manage it by repeatedly delaying the closure of IBA, which is now administered by a court and the launch of IPBC. The new corporation and the 200 employees would suffer attrition and morale problems.

Netanyahu could then try to merge it with the IBA, a move that would undermine the entire idea of the reforms, which was to create a new broadcast body free of political interference and failed management. But the prime minister is more interested in ensuring political control than quality television.

In the end, there may be a compromise that would allow the IPBC to begin operations several months later, for instance in January or March next year. It was originally supposed to be launched in March 2015, but the legislation had two built-in options for delays – March 2016 and October 2016.

That the IPBC has pushed off its launch date to the latest possible deadline under the law reflects delays in setting itself up. Hiring was gone slowly, with just 220 of the 850 staff recruited. The corporation’s temporary headquarters in Modi’in isn’t ready yet, studio equipment for radio broadcasts hasn’t been installed and television programming has not been contracted.

Pushing off the launch by several months would also costs tens of millions of shekels from the budget, but it would also ensure a more successful launch, so that the Public Broadcasting Council, the Communications Ministry and the treasury could probably all be persuaded.

Even a short delay like that, however, carries risks, as Netanyahu could exploit it to ensure further delays, leaving the IPBC in a state of limbo. He could use the resignations of Koblenz and the Public Broadcasting Council’s chairman or a budget crisis as an excuse. The political interference has already deterred prospective applicants, and a delay of several months would further hurt efforts to recruit the best staff.