Analysis

Netanyahu’s War Against Israel's Public Broadcasting

I believe Netanyahu when he says he favors competition, but when you see how he acts in the media sector, it is clear that his desire is to tame the media and control its agenda.

A shopper watching Netanyahu answer questions on Channel 2.
Moti Milrod

It is easy to guess how the hundreds of employees of the new the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, known as “Kan” (Here), feel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is threatening to shut it down before it has even put a minute of programming on the air.

It is easy too to guess how the employees of the old public broadcaster, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, feel. They have been living with the threat of being fired for years and don’t know if they will be hired by the new broadcaster.

It is easy too to guess how journalists feel in general, when reports pop up about whitelists and blacklists coming from the vicinity of the prime minister, which mark those journalists Netanyahu wants to see in the IPBC and those he does not.

The feeling of disgust journalists have from the way in which Netanyahu is handling the media sector is actually the easiest thing to understand in all of this.

But let’s put aside the feelings of media professionals and focus instead for a moment on politicians’ feelings. We won’t be cynical. We will start from the assumption that people go into politics in order to have influence and act on behalf of the public.

Illustrative: Benjamin Netanyahu addresses members of the Israeli media.
Pool, Reuters

Take Gilad Erdan, for example. He is considered to be a serious politician, to the point, ambitious and even statesmanlike. In his previous position as communications minister he adopted Netanyahu’s call “to be Kahlons” and imitate Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s great success in lowering cell phone rates as communications minister. Erdan decided to lead a courageous reform of public broadcasting and replace the IBA, which has rotted under the control of politicians.

Erdan established a public committee headed by Ram Landes, conducted an in-depth debate followed by a political struggle, which in the end led to legislation establishing the new public broadcaster and the closure of the existing one.

The logic behind the move was that it was impossible to build a new culture of public broadcasting in the existing system, so it had to be rebuiltt from scratch, while keeping the politicians away and placing the appointment of the key individuals in the hands of a search committee headed by a judge.

Erdan demonstrated statesmanlike and professional vision, but before he completed his work the opportunity to be appointed interior minister in place of Gideon Sa’ar arose, and the considerations of his own political career won out over the need to complete the job. This is the stage when things began to go awry, because Netanyahu entered the picture, and he saw things in a completely different manner than Erdan.

Media complex

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Gilad Erdan, 2014.
Alex Kolomoisky

Netanyahu suffers a complex about the media, which make him detest and fear it and seek to take it over. He views control of the media as the key to his rule and shaping reality the way he sees it. He sees it as an important tool to influence the public agenda, too, and whenever matters that are uncomfortable for him pop up (ethical standards investigations, his wife’s actions), he demonstrates expertise in creating effective distractions. It is not a matter of right or left, only power. Netanyahu does not pretend to be above politics. He wants governability, control and maximum involvement in everyrealm.

Now let us return to Erdan.

In Israeli politics, it is accepted that ministers do not keep alive the initiatives of their predecessors. That is how, for example, Yesh Atid’s moves in the previous government were erased: The German committee recommendations on the healthcare system, drafting Haredim and zero VAT on low cost first homes.

You can see understand how this worked with Yesh Atid leader and former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who Netanyahu sees as a political rival, but how does this apply to the new public broadcaster, an initiative by a minister from Netanyahu’s own party, and someone quite close to the prime minister.

What is Erdan supposed to feel, after he led the battle for broadcast reform, when Netanyahu comes along and eliminates it all? Are Erdan and Lapid just the same thing as far as Netanyahu is concerned? What does Erdan think when Netanyahu says about himself that he is the only one capable of dealing with the media because all the other Knesset members seek to curry favor with journalists?

How does Erdan see his political career when the reform he dedicated two years to is erased for political and irrelevant reasons? Is this a successful political career in his eyes? Are promotions from a small ministry to a medium-sized one and then a larger one, important at all if the prime minister wipes out your greatest political achievement?

The truth is it is easy to guess what Erdan is feeling.

When your boss acts emphatically to erase such an important achievement from your resume, you cannot be pleased. It is likely too that he will put up a fight, but how far will he be willing to go? Sometimes it happens in the workplace that the boss ruins things for you, and that is the moment that ambitious and business-like people ask themselves: “What am I doing here?”

One possible answer is that you are already busy with a new topic, bigger and no less important than the public broadcasting corporation: Public security for the citizens of Israel, let us say - so it is possible to hold it in and let your boss do what he wants. If we take into account that this very same boss has terrorized his own colleagues from his own party (see for example the recent case of Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and the issue of maintenance work on the railways on the Sabbath), then the option of keeping your mouth shut and letting him do what he wants is certainly a reasonable alternative.

Yet there is still another possible answer, and it is relevant not just for Erdan, but also for Kahlon, who left the Likud exactly because he did not like such tricks and the attitude he received from his boss Netanyahu.

The public looks at Kahlon and Erdan and sees moderate and sane politicians who are supposed to prevent damage to matters of state, the rule of law and democracy. The public expects them to take a courageous position and use their power to prevent such moves as the elimination of the public broadcasting corporation after it has already hired hundreds of people and is ready to go on the air.

A busy Kahlon

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

Kahlon can keep on repeating that he is busy with the housing price crisis, but when he remains silent or lends his hand to eliminating the public broadcaster, he becomes a party to an attack on democracy.

The agreement between Kahlon and Erdan - and in practice, of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who sees himself as a future candidate to lead the right, too - to eliminate the IPBC without a fight shows them up as cynical or scared politicians, who Netanyahu has succeeded in taming and harnessing for his own personal objectives. It would have been something else if they were objectives for the good of the nation.

P.S.Netanyahu, in his role as communications minister too, speaks time after time about his intentions to bring competition to the commercial television market. This newspaper has always supported every step to increase competition in Israel, in every sector. We are in favor of bringing in new competitors in the commercial television business, too, even though it suffers from problems stemming from a weak advertising market and dramatic technological changes (time shifted viewing, content on the internet). Let the free market determine how many commercial channels there should be: Two, three or even 10.

But when we look at Netanyahu’s actions in the media sector, this support is accompanied by worries that his main goal is not increased competition but weakening existing players and seizing control over more and more media outposts.

I believe Netanyahu when he says he favors competition, but when you see how he acts in the media sector, it is clear that his basic motive has nothing to do with competition, but to his desire to tame the media and control its agenda. This does damage to the media, democracy and in the end, Netanyahu, too, and the trust in him.