Top Justice Official Won't Back Netanyahu on Move to Kill New Public News Division

Avi Licht was allegedly kept out of talks because it was feared he would have make it more difficult for an agreement to be reached.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in 2016.
Ohad Zwigenberg

The deputy attorney general is opposed to the agreement reached last week between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to kill the new public broadcasting corporation's news division.

Avi Licht, who is considered the Justice Ministry’s top expert on media matters and was a key player in formulating the 2014 law that founded the broadcaster, known as Kan, was not asked to consult with Netanyahu on the matter.

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Sources in the Justice Ministry said Licht was absent from consultations because he would have made it more difficult to reach an agreement. Instead, it was Netanyahu’s adviser on economic affairs, Meir Levin, who assisted the prime minister during the talks.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit Sunday rejected demands to prohibit Netanyahu from dealing with issues concerning the media in general and the new public broadcasting corporation in particular. 

According to Mendelblit, the mere fact of the prime minister’s involvement in the Public Broadcasting Law “does not raise a suspicion of conflict of interest.”

Netanyahu and Kahlon agreed Friday to shutter Kan’s news division, which has hundreds of employees and is at the heart of the corporation’s work. According to their agreement, the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s news division, which is currently being dismantled, will continue to operate and broadcast news until the replacement division is established. The new division will be responsible for news broadcasts on Channel 1 and Israel Radio.

The head of the IBA’s news division, Bari Bar-Zion, is considered close to Netanyahu, and worked under him when Netanyahu was finance minister.

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A demonstrator at a Tel Aviv rally protesting the decision to close Kan's news division, April 1, 2017
Nir Keidar

Mendelblit said in his statement that although the agreement is not problem-free, it would meet the test of a High Court of Justice petition.

Mendelblit’s opinion was conveyed in a letter written by Danny Horin, a senior Justice Ministry official, and sent to the Movement for Quality Government and other organizations that were party to the request.

In his role as prime minister, the letter said, Netanyahu is “authorized to deal with issues pertaining to the various government ministries, and the fact that he is no longer the communications minister does not preclude him from involvement in communications issues in his role as prime minister.”

Horin goes on to mention Mendelblit’s legal opinion from last year barring Netanyahu from dealing with issues relating to Shaul Elovich, the owner of Bezeq and the Walla website, and a personal friend of Netanyahu.

The letter stated that while there are specific situations Netanyahu is prohibited from dealing with, these do not include the entire media and communications industry, and there are matters he is allowed to be involved in that do not involve fears of a conflict of interest. These include the Public Broadcasting Law in its current form, Horin added.

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Mendelblit’s statement was criticized by a number of political, media and legal figures Sunday. Former Justice Eliyahu Matza said that instead of preventing the prime minister from being involved in the media, Mendelblit legitimized it. “This is surprising and goes against our basic values,” Matza told Army Radio, suggesting that a High Court petition should be filed over it.

“The whole purpose for this move is to extricate the prime minister from criticism that he doesn’t like. Maybe we’re already Erdogan and Turkey,” Matza added, a reference to the increasingly autocratic Turkish president.

During legislation of the Public Broadcasting Law in 2014, Licht was one of the officials who insisted that it contain clauses to ensure separation between politicians and broadcasters.

Together with Mendelblit’s predecessor Yehuda Weinstein, Licht also prevented Netanyahu from bringing about a revolution in the media sector on the eve of the last election. On the agenda at that time was the possible closure of Channel 10, which has published a number of prominent investigative reports into the prime minister’s affairs over the years.

As for the compromise over the new broadcasting corporation, Haaretz has learned that Licht has been particularly critical of one of the new agreement’s key elements – the removal of barriers between politicians and journalists, which was present in the 2014 law.

“One of the problems is this connection between politicians and broadcasters,” Licht told the Knesset House Committee in 2014. A few months ago, Licht also wrote an opinion in support of permitting the new broadcasting corporation to begin broadcasts outside of Jerusalem. “The purpose of the law is clear: To establish an independent, efficient, relevant and excellent broadcast corporation,” he wrote.