Netanyahu’s War on the Media: He Won't Rest Until the Public Broadcasting Corporation Is History

Laws have been passed, employees are being hired, content is taking shape, a launch date for broadcasting has been scheduled – but the prime minister/communications minister is still fighting it.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In one of the interviews he gave during his visit to New York last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked about the situation of the new public broadcasting corporation, which is due to replace the veteran Israel Broadcasting Authority. “I haven’t found a solution for that yet,” he replied.

Legislation was enacted by the Knesset, the new corporation is being set up, employees are being hired, plans are being drawn up, content is taking shape, a launch date for broadcasting has been scheduled – and the communications minister (Netanyahu) is still looking for a “solution.” There was little reaction to his comment, because we’re used to it by now, used to the prime minister’s obsession with media matters. He won’t rest until he achieves his goal: to annihilate the corporation, which threatens to be an independent, high-quality body, undaunted by political influence and pressure.

Netanyahu’s supreme imperative is that the corporation will not happen. To that end, he is bringing heavy pressure to bear on the relevant coalition partners, above all Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the Kulanu party with its 10 Knesset seats. For better or worse, Kahlon is the key to the future of public broadcasting in this country in the coming years – both as the head of a Knesset faction and as the national banker.

According to informed political sources, Netanyahu is driving the treasury minister crazy with his importuning. “It’s very, very important to him,” Kahlon admitted in a private conversation a while back. He seemed to be suffering.

Officially, Kahlon and his party continue to espouse their original approach: support for the new corporation as it was initially conceived in 2014. In practice, however, Kahlon’s defenses seem to have weakened. The unwavering determination has been replaced by a pragmatic spirit that’s looking for an alternative formula. The opposition, which pinned its hopes on him, is starting to despair. “He’ll fight until the first bullet,” someone quipped this week.

The bill drawn up by coalition whip MK David Bitan (Likud), to annul the corporation and restart the tired and creaking IBA, was reviewed by authorized treasury officials. Their conclusion was that not only would its implementation not save money, it would cost the state hundreds of millions of shekels extra. Kulanu will not vote for Bitan’s bill, which was thus effectively scuppered.

The new idea, reported in Haaretz on Thursday, was concocted by a senior figure in the governing coalition and cabinet, who is insisting on remaining unnamed at this stage – at least until the feasibility of his plan is examined by the relevant people. Basically, it calls for the abolition of the new corporation and establishment of a new entity that will encompass all the media outlets that come under the rubric of public broadcasting: i.e., the remains of the IBA, whose staff is gradually being depleted; Army Radio, whose future is now being considered by a committee set up by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman under the chairmanship of the ministry’s director general; and Educational Television, which, under the newly proposed legislation, would become part of the new corporation.

The unification scheme is still in its infancy. Moreover, to implement it coalition unity is also needed: cooperation between Kulanu, Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, meaning between party heads Kahlon, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett. And, of course, the consent of the communications minister.

In 2011, in the middle of his second term as prime minister, Netanyahu decided to shut down Educational Television – first and foremost to get one of its presenters off the air. Officially, the premier’s excuse was that it would save money. I reported in this column that the problem was not kaspi (“financial,” in Hebrew), but rather journalist Ben Caspit. Then-Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar objected, and Educational Television, along with that particular presenter and his current-events show, survived. But not for a moment was the plan removed from Netanyahu’s list of targets.

At any given moment, in every chance meeting when the prime minister encounters the opportunity to make gains at the expense of a media organization – whether major or minor – with the aim of strengthening his control of the Israeli media, he locks onto the target. Like an Amstaff.

The latest initiative (which is not his) has fallen into his lap like a ripe fruit. If it goes through, many of his media headaches will go away. Army Radio, which he doesn’t like (to put it mildly), will dissolve into the new entity. Lieberman, too, is looking for a more or less elegant way to destroy the station, but isn’t eager to shut it down because of its popularity and the high regard in which it’s held. As for Educational Television, that’s taken care of.

But of far greater importance is the elimination of the new broadcasting corporation in its existing format and the summary dismissals of its CEO, Gil Omer, and director general, Eldad Koblenz. That would clip the wings of, or even possibly lead to the liquidation of Army Radio, Educational Television and the corporation altogether, and Netanyahu would thus extend his control over the depressed Israeli media.

The elected council will be dispersed, the legislation granting the corporation autonomy and sovereignty – and freedom from politicians’ crude interventions – would be replaced by a law that will be far more congenial to the government. Or, in the immortal words of the commissar from Rosh Ha’ayin, Miri Regev: “What have we set a corporation up for if we can’t control it?”

It’s just so obvious. Amazing that Netanyahu himself never thought of it until now. Or maybe he did, who knows?

For part 2 of Yossi Verter's column, click here.

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