What's Really Behind Netanyahu's Scheme to Revive the Israel Broadcasting Authority

Along with the PM, who has done an about-face and decided against creating a new public broadcasting agency, Likud MKs David Bitan and Yoav Kish seem to have other motives for seeking to rehabilitate the good old broadcaster.

The offices of the new public broadcasting corporation, Kan, Oct. 25, 2016.
Kan Spokesman's Office

If one could point to one instance which epitomizes the extent to which the Israel Broadcasting Authority has deteriorated beyond the point of redemption, it is the case of veteran journalist Moshe Nestelbaum. For the last year, he has had no role at the IBA. He doesn’t even come to work although he’s collecting his base salary as well as 8,400 shekels ($2,200) a month for overtime and on-call shifts. The IBA can’t fire him or touch his salary.

Nestelbaum used to head the news division at Channel 1. He was part of the IBA’s previous management, which ran public broadcasting into the ground. Despite this, he was almost appointed as that station’s director.

In 2013 he was suspended from the IBA for three months by a disciplinary court, for conduct unbecoming a public official, after admitting to making homophobic and humiliating remarks to two employees. He made a comeback, ostensibly as editor of the “Politika” news magazine, but for a year, it was not broadcast.

As management’s right-hand person, who brought individuals associated with the powers-that-be to “Politika,” Nestelbaum exemplifies why the authority cannot continue in its present format. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week in the Knesset that “we’ll rehabilitate the IBA,” but anyone familiar with the organization, which runs two public television channels as well as a number of radio stations, including Reshet Bet and Gimmel and Kol Hamusica, knows there is no way of doing this. It should be shut down and public broadcasting should be re-established.

In the meantime, following a series of threats by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to the effect that he will break up the government coalition over this issue, the prime minister has decided to set up a committee that will examine the future of public broadcasting. Here are some facts from the past and present that should be borne in mind before any decisions are made.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an inauguration event for the Haifa-Beit She'an railway line, in Afula, Nov. 8, 2016.
Jack Guez/AFP

1. Foot-dragging: years of delaying reforms. The year 1987 was a seminal one for public broadcasting. IBA staff, including radio and TV journalists, went on strike for 51 days. The only TV channel available then was darkened. Radio fell silent. Employees sought, not for the first time, to improve their conditions but the Likud government stood firm. “Time passed and we were wasting away at home and the public got used to watching videos and pirate stations” veteran broadcaster Yigal Ravid recalled in a Facebook post last week. “The government didn’t relent until we crawled back, with no compensation for lost days. This was the impetus for setting up commercial and cable channels.”

Prior to that, there was already discussion of serious shortcomings and exorbitant salaries at the authority, but no one lifted a finger. The strike led to calls for reforms; between 1987 and 2005, 14 committees debated plans for revamping the IBA. Internal and external monitoring committees were set up, ministers came and went – yet, during all those years, employees, management and the treasury couldn’t manage to hammer out a deal. The staff wouldn’t agree to take any palpable steps to improve efficiency or to accept significant pay cuts, as demanded by the government.

Twenty years after that strike, a reform plan was finally presented. But the plan from 2007 never made it to the finish line, with IBA employees, management and treasury officials continuing to squabble over how to implement it. Only in 2012 was the reform revised and reconfigured. A year later, when it turned out that then-Minister of Communications Gilad Erdan was seeking the closure and re-opening of the authority instead of simply implementing reforms, employees and management quickly signed new labor agreements. However, it was too late: Erdan re-examined the plan and the treasury rejected the labor agreement. Moreover, the deputy attorney general wrote an uncharacteristic letter in which he warned against implementing the reform due to poor management at the IBA, and also voiced concern over wasting public money.

After so many years of delays, is there any reason to believe that the prime minister’s desire at present to rehabilitate the IBA will lead to more efficiency there? Those involved believe that there is no chance of this and that public broadcasting in Israel can only truly be rehabilitated if the authority is shut down.

2. The Kish document – “laughable and not implementable.” Netanyahu has already taken the first step toward his goal by stating that cost-cutting can be achieved by preserving the IBA. For his part, Likud MK Yoav Kish met the heads of six workers’ committees, and together drew up a document listing the principles underlying the process of making the IBA more efficient.

Likud MK David Bitan, October 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

But anyone involved in the functioning of the authority can only ridicule this document, which is a mere one page long. “We already had MK Bitan acting like the head of the budget department at the Finance Ministry when he presented his financial statement, and now we have Kish acting like the wage supervisor,” sneers one senior treasury official. “They’ve gotten it wrong. People have been working at this for years and Kish comes along and studies things for a day and a half before reaching an understanding with employees. It’s ridiculous.”

Among other things, Kish’s document suggests a differential 15% pay cut in IBA employees’ wages. Their cost of employing a worker is about 27,000 shekels ($7,000) a month on average, and a 15% cut is far from being sufficient. The average salary cost at the proposed new public broadcasting entity, called Kan, is supposed to be 19,000 shekels a month.

The more serious problem here is that Kish and the employees have based their new deal on the 2007 reform – a plan whose implementation would only exacerbate the IBA’s situation, according to a feasibility study by the Ram Belinkov consulting company for the Landes Committee, which was set up by Erdan. In 2014 the committee recommended shutting down the IBA. “The reform doesn’t address the serious, ongoing shortcomings of the authority. It doesn’t address the organizational and managerial culture there, and offers no solution with respect to its irrelevance vis-a-vis programming,” according to the study.

Wages at the IBA have been disproportionate for years. Many employees get a base salary that is supplemented by inflated payments for overtime, which is often fictitious. Some workers report 100 or even 200 hours overtime a month to increase their wages. Instead of readjusting remuneration according to performance or skills, the 2007 reform freezes the existing situation. Authors of the feasibility study noted that this would only serve to maintain inefficiency and legitimize inaccurate reporting, as was the case in the past. The Landes Committee report noted that at the time, the IBA chairman himself admitted that “the proposed reform had more holes in it than Swiss cheese.” Despite this, the government now wants to return to the same blueprint.

3. The denials: “Netanyahu isn’t involved.” One could not exactly be surprised by Netanyahu’s official declaration last week that he’s making a U-turn, intending to backtrack on establishing Kan and to return to the good ‘ole authority – good at least as far as he’s concerned. There were long-standing concerns that Bibi would erase Erdan’s achievements by blocking the reform the latter had spearheaded. The web of lies woven by Netanyahu and his people around the new corporation has been unmasked. At first, he embraced the reform and praised Erdan, before the 2014 Gaza war. During the election campaign, the Likud touted the reform and its plan to cancel TV licencing fees. But after the 2015 election, Netanyahu decided to wage a war on public broadcasting.

It started seemingly innocuously, with delays in naming members for a new council of public broadcasting, but this eventually led to a situation in which the new entity would not be ready to go on the air on time. In 2015 the state’s official receiver recommended actively dismantling the IBA, and implementing dismissals, in order to implement the reform. Instead of embracing these recommendations Netanyahu postponed setting up the new corporation. In July 2016, he announced that “things aren’t coming together” and again put off the launch, until 2018.

Then along came MK Bitan with a proposal to shut Kan down completely, while repeatedly stating that this latest initiative was not Netanyahu’s. Minister Tzachi Hanegbi also declared that “Netanyahu isn’t involved in this,” but actually the prime minister has consistently tried to block the new corporation from ever seeing the light of day.

4. Political control: Netanyahu and the obedient ones. Decisions regarding public broadcasting will supposedly be made by a team set up last week, consisting of the directors general of the communications and finance ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office, along with the supervisor of budgets at the treasury and the head of the Prime Minister’s Bureau. The major issue to be determined involves the mechanism for making appointments.

Netanyahu isn’t interested in a new corporation not because “there are leftists there” – since Kan has clearly been trying to hire staff from all reaches of society. Rather, the premier is worried that the new entity will not be under his control. He is worried about Kan chairman, Gil Omer, and its director general, Eldad Koblentz, who want to be independent and have so far resisted attempts to make political appointments. The two feel the need for autonomy after they themselves were appointed by means of a novel mechanism that kept politicians at arm’s length from their new entity. Previously, all appointments were determined directly by politicians.

5. The jobs: Bitan and his Likud cronies. Public debate about the new corporation supposedly revolves around lofty topics such as freedom of the press, the future of democracy and the attempt of the ruling party to maintain control over public opinion by means of loyal journalists. This is only half the story.

“You give too much credit to Bitan,” says a senior government official who is familiar with the system, adding that Bitan is not interested, for example, in what people say about the prime minister’s wife or about Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. “He wants jobs for his cronies in the Likud, that’s all.”

There may actually be 900 jobs at stake here, some of them high-paying ones. Most of the appointments are done without tenders or minimal requirements; there are fewer obstacles than in government corporations. It’s a golden opportunity for someone wishing to bolster his standing in the party.

There is a lot of money in public broadcasting. Being in control of it could help any politician, who could help his friends by allowing them to become suppliers for it. Bitan has responded to such notions as “nonsense.”