Conflict of Interests? The Real Story Behind Netanyahu’s Rant at His Communications Minister

Key points in leaked conversation between Netanyahu and Ayoub Kara on Israeli news channel shed light on the criminal cases pending against the PM

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Ayoub Kara during a Likud faction meeting in 2015.
Lior Mizrahi

The recordings aired on Channel 13 Monday, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heard blatantly meddling in the communications market, allow a fuller understanding of the context of the three criminal cases pending against him.

The conversations reveal the considerable attention that the prime minister, who was forced to drop the communications portfolio in 2017 due to connections with two major players amounting to conflict of interest, pays to the media and how it covers him. They also demonstrate the lengths to which he was prepared to go – including dismissing and even eliminating the Communications Ministry’s broadcasting council – to obtain sympathetic media coverage for himself.

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The claim that Netanyahu is obsessed with the media comes up again and again, this time with a stridency that we had not witnessed in the past. But even now, we need to distinguish what’s important from what isn’t.

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The recorded conversation between the prime minister and then-Communications Minister Ayoub Kara dealt with the fate of Channel 20, a channel that is sympathetic to Netanyahu, but which has minuscule ratings.

Two of the pending criminal cases against the prime minister are about his relationship with the media, both alleging that Netanyahu used his position to receive positive coverage from daily Yedioth Aharonoth in one case, and news website Walla! in the other. When it comes to Channel 20, however, there is no evidence that any kind of deal was struck between either side to slant coverage in return for favors from the government.

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One way or another, Channel 20 was already in Netanyahu’s pocket, singing his praises in its current affairs programming. As a Haaretz editorial said at the time, the legal process was necessary to save the station and relieve the media of the regulation and political grip that they were under. Netanyahu’s dedication to help the station for political reasons is ugly and inappropriate, but it’s difficult to prove that it involved criminal intent involving the quid pro quo of a bribery deal.

In light of what Netanyahu is heard saying in Monday's Channel 13 broadcast, he apparently wasn’t prohibited from dealing with niche stations such as Channel 20, which are not direct competitors of the country’s two main commercial channels. But during the conversation, the prime minister urged Kara over and over not only to dismiss the members of the cable and satellite broadcasting council, but to entirely disband the institution.

The cable and satellite council oversees the operations of Bezeq’s Yes satellite television subsidiary, which at the time was controlled by Shaul Elovitch. Netanyahu’s effort, which ultimately never came to fruition, does raise the prospect of a conflict of interest.

Foreign ownership

The shriller aspects of his discussion with Kara obscured Netanyahu’s most serious intervention in the Israeli media landscape.

During the conversation, the prime minister enjoined Kara to lobby to scrap the restrictions over foreign ownership of commercial Israeli television stations.

Israeli law then restricted foreign ownership to 49%, and even though it was not entirely dismissed, it was in fact changed, extending the share to a 74 percent stake. This provision, which was passed at the beginning of 2018, directly affected the commercial stations that Netanyahu was barred from dealing with due to conflicts of interest.

The most interesting question is what justified Netanyahu’s intentions. Did he plan to have a foreign investor buy an Israeli station? One way or another, according to the recordings, Netanyahu continued his meddling even after the criminal investigations against him began.