Battle Over Public Broadcasting Heats Up as Netanyahu Vows to Fix IBA

Prime minister says state will rehabilitate Israel Broadcasting Authority, but Kahlon digs in heels, saying he won't waste money on shutting down Kan.

Moshe Kahlon and Benjamin Netanyahu, August 14, 2016.
Emil Salman

The fight over the future of the new public broadcasting corporation grew fiercer on Monday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear he was determined to kill it off, while Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon voiced support for it.

“We will rehabilitate the [Israel] Broadcasting Authority and do it in a fiscally responsible way,” the prime minister said at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session. Kahlon boycotted the event.

Sources close to Netanyahu said the coalition would block Kahlon’s flagship initiative to rein in soaring housing prices by imposing taxes on people who own three or more homes unless the minister consented to closing Kan, the public broadcasting corporation.

But Kahlon dug in his heels. On Sunday he had refused to join a meeting of coalition party leaders, where Netanyahu had sought to lobby for his plan to shutter Kan, and on Monday Kahlon absented himself from the Knesset session.

Kahlon, who has threatened to bolt the coalition if he doesn’t get its support for the house tax, is not a Knesset member but as a cabinet minister he would normally have been present for the opening day.

Kan is already up and running, and has promised to begin its first television and radio broadcast January 1. But Netanyahu reportedly fears that the new corporation will be politically independent, unlike the IBA.

Critics have also scored it for wasting money and producing programming few people watch. But Netanyahu and Kahlon have positioned the conflict as one about money, with the prime minster and his allies asserting that Kan will cost the government more to operate than the IBA. Kahlon, backed by treasury estimates, has said shutting down Kan and reviving the IBA will costs as much as 400 million shekels ($104 million) a year more.

“I have the right to guard the public purse I don’t intend to surrender. If I need to veto it then I will veto it,” Kahlon said Monday.

At a meeting of his Kulanu Party on Monday, Kahlon reiterated that position. “This is a test for us as a member of the coalition. I understand that we must have money for welfare and health and I won’t allow myself to spend hundreds of millions of shekels to please Netanyahu’s whims,” he said.

Kahlon concluded: “The time has come to tell the prime minister ‘no more,’” or in Hebrew “ad kan.”

However, President Reuven Rivlin, who addressed the Knesset before Netanyahu, made clear he regarded the fight over public broadcasting an issue of political interference.

“Whoever supports public broadcasting can’t allow it to become a mouthpiece for commissars. Those who are against public broadcasting should say so clearly. Whoever wants public broadcasting must ensure that it’s objective and nonpartisan,” Rivlin said.

Nevertheless, coalition MKs continued their work to bring back the IBA and close down Kan.

Knesset House Committee Chairman Yoav Kisch (Likud) announced that an agreement had been reached with the workers committees at the IBA about cost cuts. He said they had agreed to 300 more job cuts and other measures that would save 100 million shekels annually.

Coalition whip David Bitan (Likud) said he expected an agreement to be reached with Kahlon by the end of the week on closing the public broadcasting corporation. He said Sunday’s cabinet meeting would show a majority for the closure.

The coalition expects Bitan to present draft legislation that would cancel an existing law shuttering the IBA for the first of three votes it needs to become law already on Wednesday of next week. Bitan would then chair a special Knesset committee to devise the exact wording of the legislation.