Netanyahu Gets 'F' as Communications Minister

Since he took over the Communications Ministry a year and a half ago and appointed a political ally as director general, key decisions have been left in abeyance.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, February 10, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, February 10, 2016.Credit: Olivieh Fitoussi

In recent weeks there has been a flurry of correspondence between the justice and communications ministries after Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber issued an opinion that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot also serve as communications minister.

Zilber is believed to have reached that conclusion because of the prime minister’s friendship with Shaul Elovitch, who controls Bezeq, Israel’s biggest telecommunications company. Elovitch has been accused of ensuring favorable coverage on the Walla news website, which is part of the Bezeq group, in exchange for favorable regulatory treatment of Bezeq.

But legal issues aside, the fact remains that as communications minister Netanyahu has little to show, certainly in comparison with his predecessors.

Netanyahu assumed the post in November 2014, in his previous government, when Gideon Sa’ar took a break from politics and stepped down as interior minister. Gilan Erdan, who was communications minister, took over the interior portfolio.

Netanyahu stepped into communications. He decided to keep the portfolio for himself (not to mention the Foreign Ministry and a couple of others) after the March 2015 election and the formation of a new government.

As a measure of how important Netanyahu regards the Communications Ministry, the coalition agreement includes a “communications clause” in which each coalition partner is committed to supporting any legislation the prime minster undertakes in the sector.

Shortly after the election, Netanyahu made a fateful decision to peremptorily fire Avi Berger, the ministry’s activist director general. In his place, he appointed Shlomo Filber, who had no experience in telecommunications or media but ran the Likud party campaign headquarters. In the absence of a full-time communications minister, Filber has become the most important policy maker in the Israeli telecoms sector.

Bezeq Chairman Shaul Elovitch. Credit: Dudu Bachar

In the 10 months since he formally took the job, the tone of policy has changed. Filber talks less than his predecessors about competition and working for the consumer and more about “excess competition” and “corporate stability.” Policy has become much more pro-industry.

“My biggest fear is a price war. Too much competition is putting the market out of balance,” he has said. That was one of the few public statements he has made on competition in cellular telephony since the 2012 reform went into effect, one of the biggest issues facing policy makers.

But more than being business friendly, Filber’s tenure has been characterized by inaction. Far from policy failures, there are few policy drives to point to, and the few there are haven’t been completed.

Last December, Filber said he would hold hearings on extending wide-band liberalization measures to include landline telephones, a move that would force Bezeq to sell lines to competitors just as it is now required for broadband Internet. Filber wanted a landline reform much more favorable to Bezeq, which now dominates the segment, than his predecessor had called for by requiring competitors to pay much higher fees to the company.

Filber’s terms would have made it virtually impossible for Cellcom Israel and Partner Communications to compete. He eventually offered a compromise, even though it was rejected by the ministry’s experts.

In any case, nearly six months have passed and no decision has been made. In March, at a meeting of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee called to discuss the delay, Filber promised he would make a decision in three weeks. It still hasn’t happened.

The same inaction applies to Hot Telecom. In January, the ministry said it would hold a hearing on including the broadband reform and require the company to sell lines to rivals. “The process is expected to be quick – a decision will be taken by the first quarter of 2016,” a statement said.

An issue that Filber has taken to heart is the rule putting so-called Chinese walls between Bezeq’s various businesses, designed to ensure that the company doesn’t abuse its overwhelming position in the communications industry but saddles it with extra costs. In his work plan, Filber promised to rescind the separation order on Bezeq in the first half of this year, but with two months to go it’s doubtful this will happen.

Many other clauses in the work program concerning cyber policy, the Internet of Things and the reorganizing of radio-spectrum allocations, for example also have June 30 deadlines. Filber might surprise everyone, but right now it doesn’t look like any of these initiatives will be completed by deadline.

The Communications Ministry has never published its stand on the merger between Cellcom and Golan Telecom, even though the Antitrust Commission has already declared its opposition.

Asked about the inaction under his watch, Filber blamed the red tape he inherited.

“Over the last several years the hearing process in the Communications Ministry has become long and complicated and can take months, a situation that’s incompatible with a dynamic commercial market,” he said. “In addition, companies have more than once used procedures to delay regulations unfavorable to themselves or helpful to the competition.”

As Filber put it, “Not long ago, the deputy attorney general, Avi Licht, said privately that the Communications Ministry is being devoured by hearings. The process has been revised to make it faster and businesslike. I plan to try to create faster and more effective work procedures.”

The real problem, however, may be that Netanyahu prefers to do nothing. As in other areas of policy, his flagship policy is to do nothing, to decide not to decide. With the telecommunications market, this happens to work in Bezeq’s favor, so intentionally or not, Elovitch is the beneficiary.

In most of the developed world, communications policy is no longer managed by a ministry with a politician as its head, but by an independent authority. In Israel, such a model has been proposed many times over the past 20 years, but it has never been adopted because the politicians don’t want to cede power, even if it’s the power to do nothing.

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