Israel’s Eurovision Dream Slips Away as Cutoff Nears

In contrast to every Eurovision host country ever, Netanyahu and Israel's finance minister decided that the event in Israel would be funded by the new public broadcaster

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mimicking Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai's chicken dance, May 2018.
Emil Salman

There is a very big chance the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest will not be held in Israel. What began with Netta Barzilai’s incredible achievement in Lisbon is on the brink of becoming a tragicomedy akin to one of the bleakest episodes of “Polishuk.” The star of the present episode is Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is working hand in hand with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hurt — financially and image-wise — the new public broadcaster that is still trying to find its footing a year and a half since it began operations. If the Eurovision is in fact canceled, Netanyahu will be quick to pin the blame on the public broadcaster. All that will be needed to complete the political spin will be his claiming that the broadcaster has ties to the New Israel Fund or that its leaders go around waving Palestinian flags.

Netanyahu’s hatred for Kan is nothing new. He did his utmost to prevent its establishment and tried to split off its news division in order to weaken it. To date, his efforts have failed. The public broadcaster was established, the news division was not split off, the World Cup was broadcast as planned and the new programming schedule was launched. But this time, Kahlon, who previously clashed with Netanyahu over the public broadcaster, is shamelessly backing him.

Three weeks ago, all the relevant parties (Netanyahu, Kahlon, the heads of the public broadcaster) met to discuss the splitting off of the news division, a move that was canceled so that the Eurovision could be held in Israel. (The rules of the European Broadcasting Union stipulate that the broadcaster that hosts the Eurovision include a news division.) Kan’s leaders took the opportunity to request a one-time additional funding clause for the Eurovision production, including 12 million euros in guarantees to the EBU. If this is not passed by Tuesday night, the competition will have to be canceled in Israel. Netanyahu has stubbornly refused to the additional budget and Kahlon has lined up with him. The prime minister’s inner strategist saw a golden opportunity to strike at the hated broadcaster.

And so, in contrast to every Eurovision host country ever, Netanyahu and Kahlon decided that the event in Israel would be funded by the broadcasting organization. They say Kan’s 700 million shekel ($189 million) annual budget should suffice. This is demagogy. This sum — which pays for original productions, salaries and more — is not meant to cover an event that costs 35 million euros (excluding the deposit). When Kahlon gives interviews and mocks Kan officials’ worry that if the Eurovision is canceled they won’t get the deposit back, he neglects to mention that his ministry firmly refused to support this promise with an official document to that effect.

Kan, unlike the Israel Broadcasting Authority that preceded it, has no debts at present: not to the banks, the Finance Ministry or the politicians. CEO Eldad Koblenz has done all he can to avoid economic and political pressures. He is well aware of the article in the public broadcasting law that prohibits the organization from falling into a deficit. Unlike the directors of the former IBA, he refuses to fold. Kind of like Netanyahu, he, too, is willing to bet the farm. But no matter the outcome, Kan’s image has already suffered. Much of the Israeli public, which isn’t rushing to watch Kan’s programming, doesn’t get why it should have to fund a broadcaster that already receives 700 million shekels a year.

The moment of truth arrives Tuesday night, the last chance for Netanyahu and Kahlon to approve the transfer of the deposit. It’s a gamble. Cancellation of the Eurovision in Israel would be a big story and feature prominently in European headlines, and reports would pop up around the world about yet another anti-democratic move by the Israeli government. At the same time, Netanyahu and Kahlon are also aware that holding the event in Israel will stir up the boycott, divestment and sanctions activists who will launch a campaign to get many countries to stay away. They might just prefer to avoid all that. For his part, Kahlon appears worried by the growing smell of early elections in the air, and is wary of taking a public stand against the prime minister on an issue perceived as being of major public weight. Either way, he has shown once again what an excellent job he does as a marionette in Netanyahu’s puppet theater. All we can do now is wait to see what trick he will pull out at the last minute, and just who is going to have to eat his hat.