Forget Iran, Netanyahu's New No.1 Enemy Is the Israeli Media

The furor over the new broadcasting entity presages a tough battle by the PM against the media in the next election. Meanwhile, his party claims that Habayit Hayehudi is bedding down with leftist journalists.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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An illustration of a ship named "The Media" hitting an iceberg in the shape of Netanyahu's head. People are jumping ship, like in "Titanic."
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Quite a few experienced and knowledgeable politicos were ready to swear this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was about to call a snap election. They watched, stunned, as he flayed Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and as the government reached a boiling point just before submission of the 2017-2018 budget and, above all, as an old-new agenda came to the fore: the media.

Netanyahu dismantled his previous coalition on a pretext of “lack of governance,” but the main reason was the threat to his private mouthpiece, the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom. What happened once could happen again. And this time, the premier is enlarging the arena. It’s not just a case of fighting the demand for even a symbolic payment for the paper – which, as even Netanyahu admits candidly, could bring about its closure – but rather of a sweeping campaign against everything that smacks of a free press and doesn’t sing the praises of the Great Leader.

The madness reached a point where even Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist movement and a towering liberal and democrat, was in essence exhumed and recruited for the escalating battle of Communications Minister Netanyahu against the media.

Netanyahu came down especially hard on Noni Mozes, chairman of the Yedioth Ahronoth Group of media outlets. In a monologue he delivered on Monday at a meeting of the Likud Knesset faction, the prime minister portrayed himself as a one-man cavalry galloping to the rescue – liberating Israel’s citizens from the suffocating grip of the left-wing mafia that is telling the masses what to think.

“Politicians want to curry favor with elements in the media that seek to remain a monopoly,” he asserted. “That is exactly the reason that I assumed the role of minister of communications. Because I alone am capable of withstanding the pressures and the attacks of the media elements.”

Netanyahu abandoned his Iranian agenda after his abject failure to prevent last year’s signing of the nuclear accord between Iran and the world powers. He wore out the thesis of the “treacherous left” and the “Arab droves” in the last election. He won’t likely be able to use that lame gambit again so effectively, not least because – let’s admit it – the left is dead. Moribund.

But the media are still here. Albeit weaker, poorer, fighting for their lives in a difficult advertising market and adjusting to the era of social networks. Netanyahu declared this week, in the Knesset session in memory of Jabotinsky, that his next target will be to “open” the market of commercial channels to competition. It’s easy to see where he’s heading: In the next election he’ll be aiming at the media. And not in only a marginal way; this time he’ll launch a massive bombardment.

The targets won’t only be the daily newspapers – principally, Yedioth Ahronoth and Haaretz – but the two commercial TV channels. Public broadcasting has already been dealt with. The premier’s sabotage efforts, abetted by his close allies – Culture Minister Miri Regev, coalition chairman David Bitan and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin (also now environmental protection minister) – have left their mark. The apprehension and uncertainty within the entity that’s due to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority is bound to have a negative impact on the recruitment of new staff. Even if the new corporation comes into being, despite the obstacles placed in its path by the government, it’s hard to see it playing a major role in the media market.

Casting the media as the enemy of the people will also serve Netanyahu politically, against Bennett and the party he heads, Habayit Hayehudi. Even now, there is no Likud press release in which Bennett – with or without Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – is not mentioned in the same breath with Noni Mozes and “the left” as trying to undermine the Likud-led government. Though the next election isn’t scheduled to take place before 2019, the anti-Bennett message is being hammered home insistently. Netanyahu is trying to push Bennett into a corner where he’ll be forced either to continue to support a free media or to change his tune for fear of losing some of his constituency to Likud.

Since the fiasco of the attempt by Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog to form a unity government – which ended with the co-option of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – there has, in effect, not been a parliamentary opposition in this country. The Labor Party (chief component of Zionist Union) is mired in suicidal internecine fighting. The year-long delay in the party’s primary agreed upon this week will not bring peace and quiet, only destruction.

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the second-biggest party in the opposition, is effectively nonexistent. It has some industrious, well-intentioned people, but when the leader is busy playing at “being foreign minister,” the whole Knesset faction looks unfocused.

The only opposition to Netanyahu comes from the right, and from within his government: Habayit Hayehudi. It is in that arena that the next election will be decided. The premier grasps this and has initiated the battle already, since all he’s thinking about is the next election. He knows there is little chance of Bennett recommending him to the president as prime minister again. Bennett thinks that Netanyahu has crossed into the danger zone, and has to be ousted – for the good of the country.

Ayelet Shaked at the Knesset. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Play within the play

Justice Minister Shaked doesn’t usually say much in cabinet meetings, so her outburst this week left her colleagues agape. She pounded on the table with her fist after Minister Without Portfolio Ofir Akunis claimed that her party, Habayit Hayehudi, had planted journalists sympathetic to it in the new public broadcasting entity. “Enough lies! Stop whining and start governing!” she shouted at the Likud ministers.

The collective astonishment around the table stemmed from what seemed like a total disproportion between the remark and the (non-)importance of the speaker, Akunis, and the passionate response. Shaked is a cool, calm, intellectual type. Akunis was only the match that ignited the blaze.

Here’s the backstory: Shaked and Bennett recently expressed an opinion contrary to Netanyahu’s on the new public broadcasting corporation; Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) did as well. All were dead set against the decision to delay the corporation’s start of broadcasting by 15 months, until January 2018. In response, a “Likud source” issued a communique stating that Bennett and Shaked were serving as the long arm of Yedioth’s Noni Mozes. The two bit their lips and said nothing.

Then last Saturday, Shaked was asked on “Meet the Press” about the clash between Netanyahu and Bennett in the security cabinet, over the extent to which the government addressed the problem of the Gaza tunnels before the 2014 war. “I know Naftali Bennett as a person who speaks the truth,” Shaked replied, “but let’s wait for the state comptroller’s report.”

Asked about the investigation now under way against the prime minister – namely, when and if he should resign, she offered a dry, formalistic reply: “There is a law stipulating that a minister must resign only when he is indicted.” She added that it was important to be careful not to turn investigations into attempts at political liquidation.

The response appeared late that same night, on Likud’s Facebook page: “Bennett is continuing to dig political tunnels in order to harm the prime minister He balks at nothing, including lies Time after time, Bennett and Shaked are showing that they are collaborating with the forces of the left to topple the Likud government. We see this in the alliance with Lapid, in the preservation of the left-wing monopoly in the media and also in their ministerial activity.”

Bennett and Shaked didn’t know what had hit them. They wondered whether Netanyahu would dare use such brutal, provocative language against his other coalition partners. With regard to his new pal Lieberman, or Arye Dery or Yaakov Litzman or Moshe Kahlon (who, contrary to Bennett, is considered a natural partner for a center-left government). Obviously not.

Besides Netanyahu’s understandable rationale of wanting to drive Habayit Hayehudi, his right-wing rival, into the arms of the left, his feelings in this case are spurred by primal hatred nourished by his close surroundings. Everyone in the political arena understands who is behind the media communiques and who the torchbearer is who will never let this fire go out.

Habayit Hayehudi decided to maintain restraint, but everything blew up the next day in the cabinet meeting. “We’re not going to be your punching bags anymore,” Bennett shouted. “What are you all whimpering about all day? You’ve been in power almost 40 years and you can’t stop wailing. Decide what you want – a [broadcasting] corporation, yes or no. Who is the communications minister today? And the one before him?”

Then hours later, close to midnight on Sunday, a Likud Facebook post again dubs Bennet and Shaked “darlings of the left,” who are digging tunnels under Netanyahu’s government. There was no logical reason for that late-night volley, 12 hours after the cabinet skirmish. There was nothing in that off-the-wall response other than bile.

This time, the Bennett gang fought back. In a press release the next morning, they accused Netanyahu of “firing inside the armored personnel carrier” – “just as he fired inside the APC when he voted for the [Gaza] disengagement and the destruction of the Katif Bloc settlements, just like when he released the largest number of terrorists in the country’s history, when he gave Hebron to Yasser Arafat, when he froze construction [in the settlements], when he gave in to Hamas ” and so on, trippingly upon the tongue.

Netanyahu’s aides went into shock. They’d expected an appropriate Zionist response, not to be hit by a whole APC between the eyes. Every self-respecting leader would have reacted to that blast of insults by immediately firing those responsible. But Netanyahu’s political weakness was exposed glaringly here: Without Habayit Hayehudi, he doesn’t have a government.

Likud issued another response, but it was more of the same. The traces of shock were evident in it. Bennett had made good on his threat; the balance of terror had shifted. The next round will start not at 10 kph. but at 180.

What you see

“A tempest in a teacup,” says Yariv Levin (Likud), the minister who liaises between the government and the Knesset, about the public broadcasting corporation furor. The prime minister has no intention of seizing control of public broadcasting or of undermining the new entity, and there’s no malice. Rather, says Levin, Shlomo Filber, director general of the Communications Ministry, and other experts, told Netanyahu that the new corporation wasn’t ready to start broadcasting, and he took their advice. Any evil schemes cooked up by the premier’s rivals are plain old nonsense.

“It’s true that many in Likud think the corporation is a bad idea,” Levin admits, “and I myself had objections at the start. But Netanyahu is past all that. He was even surprised at what he heard in the cabinet about the emerging personnel makeup of the corporation. The allegations voiced there were new to him.”

At present, Levin says, “there’s a better chance that the corporation will come into existence than that it won’t. Everyone understands that. The real reason for the clash that erupted is the State Comptroller’s Report about the [Gaza] tunnels and the argument with Bennett. The quarrel over the corporation is the result of an accumulation of things.”

Levin, the minister closest to Netanyahu and his emissary on the most delicate missions, has the soul of a lawyer. He will defend his client devotedly; what you see with him is what you get. There is no hidden message.

“What characterizes the events of this week is that at the end of the meeting, everyone wanted to show that he is alive... In the end, note that the atmosphere in the Knesset is quite relaxed. And cabinet meetings are always very boring. The work gets done.”

Levin terms the relations between Bennett and Netanyahu as “very bad,” and expects that to continue, but without endangering the government’s existence. (Bennett too, overall, shares this view.) Levin’s eternal composure has been shaken by someone else: Finance Minister Kahlon, who made a comment about the government needing to go on recess urgently before it’s institutionalized.

“Kahlon is trying to position himself as the responsible, sane, judicious adult in a government of irresponsible wackos,” Levin says. “As though he’s above it all. But really, does anyone buy that?”

U.S. President Barack Obama meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations, New York, U.S., September 21, 2011. Credit: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

I asked him the standard question: Is the unity government option becoming viable again, now that Herzog doesn’t have to deal with a leadership battle for a year? Levin didn’t sound optimistic. “In the end, it’s Herzog’s decision,” he said. “The terms are known. The bride we’re offering is known, even if she’s shrunk somewhat since the last round. Ministerial portfolios have been distributed” – referring to Lieberman getting the Defense Ministry and Kahlon getting the Economy and Industry Ministry, this week.

Netanyahu continues to retain the Foreign Ministry, claiming it’s “waiting for Herzog,” but no one in his party believes that. (In fact, they don’t believe anything he says about anything.) He won’t appoint anyone from his party to the post – to avoid a blood feud between Gilad Erdan and Yisrael Katz, two ministers who each have a written commitment from Netanyahu to be appointed the party’s most senior minister, and also to prevent either of them from enhancing his public status.

The same general appraisal prevails in Labor and in Zionist Union. Herzog gained a year’s reprieve until the primary, but in the meantime he will be savaged by his party rivals. He needs more than a miracle to rehabilitate his standing, and that won’t happen in the opposition. The foreign affairs portfolio would definitely help, or at least let him pass the time pleasantly until his ouster, but he has no troops behind him. No one will follow him into this government.

The Knesset recessed on Thursday for almost three months and will reconvene on the eve of the U.S. election. The period between Nov. 8 and Jan. 20, 2017, when the new president will be sworn in, is generating consternation in Israel’s political corridors. What revenge will President Obama take on Netanyahu, once he has nothing to fear?

No one here has any doubt that after eight years of futile diplomatic efforts, Obama will wish to leave some sort of legacy vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, possibly in the form of a binding Security Council resolution. Netanyahu had designated Herzog to sweeten that bitter pill. It could have been a perfect match: congruent interests, mutual dependence. Now it looks like each of them will have to manage by himself, with himself.

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