Compromise Would Cripple and Politicize Israel’s Public Broadcaster

Proposal put forward on Sunday would save new corporation but give much more control to prime minister.

Bennett and Netanyahu during a cabinet meeting, 2016.
Emil Salman

Call it horse-trading, political blackmail or the balance of terror. By any name, in the battle over public broadcasting in Israel the prime minister is pitted against a few members of his cabinet. The outcome will determine the future of the public broadcasting corporation and the extent of Benjamin Netanyahu’s control over it.

A meeting of the forum of party leaders was called for later on Sunday to discuss the issue, but before the die is cast for the new Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, or Kan, visible muscle-flexing from all interested parties can be expected.

Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) is proposing a bill that would eliminate Kan, roll back the law underpinning its establishment and restore the Israel Broadcasting Authority it was meant to replace.

The law was designed to make public broadcasting less susceptible to the influence of politicians, while reducing operating costs. To that end, license fees were to be scrapped, in favor of funding the corporation through direct allocations in the state budget. In addition, the law stipulated the structural and legal reorganization of the public broadcaster.

All three of these key achievements are now in doubt as a result of political interference, largely from the direction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides.

The matter has largely been left to a relatively small group of politicians, media figures, academics and civil-society organizations, with occasional reports in media outlets about the new corporation’s imminent demise or revival and about the journalists who will or won’t be a part of it.

The heads of two coalition parties —Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu and Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi — are not in favor of scrapping Kan, but they won’t commit political suicide over it.

It’s hard to predict the outcome of Sunday’s meeting, but the assumption is that a compromise will be sought. The latest proposal would keep the new broadcasting corporation, allowing Kahlon and Bennett to take credit for preventing its closure, while giving Netanyahu, who is also communications minister, significantly greater power over it.

As a result, Kan might hire more former IBA employees than the current law allows, and Kan’s CEO and chairman — Eldad Koblenz and Gil Omer, respectively — might be replaced. In addition, Netanyahu would gain veto power over prospective new hires. In short, the corporation structure would remain but it would be entirely subject to Netanyahu’s whims.

The bottom line in any case is that the operation to surgically separate the public broadcaster from the politicians has failed. The patient might live, but unless the party heads insist upon it the new public broadcasting corporation will be no different than the Israel Broadcasting Authority. This might be good news for its future employees, but it’s bad news for anyone who hoped to see a public broadcaster free of political obligations. That’s won’t happen this time around.