Politicians Call the Shots for Israel's 'Free' Press

In Israel – not in Turkey, not in Syria, not in Egypt and not in North Korea – the prime minister’s gopher reaches agreement with a party in the ruling coalition about when and how and if the board chairman of an independent, commercial media organization will or will not take office.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talking in Knesset with former Economy Minister Arye Dery, who stepped down to enable the PM to pass his 'gas plan'.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talking in Knesset with former Economy Minister Arye Dery, who stepped down to enable the PM to pass his 'gas plan'.Credit: Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The “crisis” between Shas and Likud, which played out mainly in the media but barely caused a ripple in the relevant arenas – the Knesset plenum and its committees – officially ended on Wednesday: Head of the Likud faction and coalition whip MK David Bitan informed Channel 10 News that its board chairman-designate, Rami Sadan, will not take up his post until the High Court of Justice rules on the appointment.

Hard to believe, but this is the distorted and sick media reality in 2016 Israel. In Israel – not in Turkey, not in Syria, not in Egypt and not in North Korea – the prime minister’s representative and gopher reaches agreement with a party in the ruling coalition about when and how and if the board chairman of an independent, commercial media organization, who was elected democratically by the governing body, will or will not take office.

Political correspondents saw Shas as hurrying to come down from the tree it climbed. But, undemocratic as its behavior might be, it deserves acclaim from the advocates of democracy and free media in Israel. Without intending to, Dery and his associates – by their loud protest against the appointment of a person who reportedly made offensive, patronizing and racist remarks against Shas, its leader and its supporters – helped tear off another bit of the mask beneath which Netanyahu and his cohorts are gradually taking over the media market in Israel.

The moment when Bitan made his call to someone in the Channel 10 management and issued the order, will be remembered as significant in the history of government-media relations. It made a mockery of the words of Netanyahu’s people at the start of the crisis, that “he [Netanyahu] didn’t make the appointment, so the fire shouldn’t be aimed at him.” It’s a good thing that Dery didn’t buy that crude lie. (Indeed, as reported here last week, someone very close to the prime minister complained to Dery, “For more than three-and-a-half years, we’ve been trying to get one of our people into Channel 10, so why are you sticking us with this now?”.)

An interim scorecard, until the High Court rules: Shas waged a battle over remarks made behind closed doors, and denied by Sadan denied, and it got what it wanted – on one hand, it elicited the support, at times excessive, of all parts of the political system, which castigated the remarks and the person who made them, and, on the other, it got a delay in the Channel 10 appointment.

Dery was smart to take aim directly at Netanyahu. If he’d focused solely on Sadan and the board that elected him – a bizarre choice but transparent in its motives – he would never have received an iota of the media coverage he got (though this faded with the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv and then the event in Orlando). At an earlier stage, Dery considered making do with an apology from Sadan, but changed his mind after consultations. If he hadn’t, Netanyahu would have escaped the unpleasantness, and Sadan – a PR man and lobbyist with a tangle of connections and vested interests, and a former spokesman for Sara Netanyahu – would have taken up his post.

As bitter fate would have it, also this past Wednesday, the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, announced his decision barring Communications Minister Netanyahu from dealing with the ramified, dripping-in-money and influential affairs involving his good friend Shaul Elovitch. “It’s a salient conflict of interests,” Mendelblit ruled, in response to a request from Meretz leader MK Zehava Galon, provoked by a detailed, hair-raising investigative report by Haaretz reporter Gidi Weitz about the favorable coverage given the Netanyahus on the popular Walla portal, which belongs to Elovitch. (He is also the controlling shareholder in telecom giant Bezeq, satellite TV provider Yes and other media bodies).

Mendelblit, who was Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, had been considered the prime minister’s preferred candidate for the post of attorney general – but, as reported here, Netanyahu changed his mind at the last minute. Maybe someone whispered to him that Mendelblit couldn’t be trusted, that his decisions might not serve the right people.

Envoys of Netanyahu put pressure on certain members of the committee that recommended the attorney general, but to no avail. Some of those members, who initially had qualms about Mendelblit, perceived as being too close to Netanyahu, saw what was going on under their nose and switched their support to him. So far, he’s been the right man in the right place. Still, according to what’s being whispered in the political and legal corridors, he still has a mountain to climb.

Another country heard from

In the weekly meeting between Netanyahu and Likud cabinet ministers, Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis voiced an interesting complaint: “We, who are cabinet members but not members of the security cabinet, appear a lot in the media, but we don’t know enough. We need to get real-time reports on security and diplomatic issues like the members of the security cabinet, who are constantly updated.”

Netanyahu and Akunis during a meeting of the Likud Knesset faction, July 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

“Don’t be so sure of that,” said Jerusalem Affairs Minister (and member of the security cabinet) Zeev Elkin. But Akunis was persistent: “Maybe a mechanism should be set up to keep us in the picture,” the young, hopeful minister suggested.

Netanyahu, according to one of those present, muffled a contemptuous snort. “So you, too, want a private military secretary?” he snapped at Akunis.

Akunis, scandalized, protested: “I’m not Naftali Bennett!”

Other Likud ministers who are fortunate enough to be members of the security cabinet didn’t pass up the opportunity to pick on one of their own. “We don’t actually know more,” National Infrastructure Minister (and security cabinet member) Yuval Steinitz said. “And besides, what’s said in the media is all that can be said in the media. So why do you need to know more details that you won’t be able to reveal anyway?”

Another speaker – possibly Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, or Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, both in the security cabinet – had practical advice for their grumbling colleague: “Listen to the radio, read the newspapers, check out websites, you’ll find everything there.”

The full cabinet meeting was about to begin, but the Likud ministers took their time getting there. Akunis left the earlier meeting before them, perhaps because he was upset.

“Where are the Likud ministers?” asked Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi).

“They’re transparent, so you don’t see them,” Interior Minister Arye Dery observed.

“That’s right, we really are transparent,” Akunis said, still griping.

Maybe it’s Akunis’ frustration at his lack of clout in the government and his ignorance of state secrets that’s leading him to reflect aloud, and in private conversations, about running for mayor of Tel Aviv in November 2018.

The view in the political arena is that the city’s longtime mayor, Ron Huldai, is unlikely to seek a fifth term, and that if he does he might lose after 20 consecutive years in office. Before the last election, it was thought that Likud ministers Erdan and Gideon Sa’ar (who has since left politics) might have a chance in that distinctly non-Likud city. Both now have other ambitions.

If Huldai steps aside voluntarily, that’s one thing; if he runs again, it will take someone weighty to unseat him – and it’s not certain that Akunis is the person. Who the potential candidates will be also has to do with the ruling party’s situation at the time. If it looks as though Likud will lose the next general election, which will probably be held in early 2019, some will definitely jump ship to run for the attractive post of prime minister of the State of Tel Aviv.

Read part 1 of Yossi Verter's weekend column.

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