Analysis

Netanyahu's Eurovision Gamble Paid Off, and Now He Reaps the Benefits

The prime minister refused to fund the Eurovision Song Contest, knowing well that a bank loan would threaten the public broadcaster's financial independence - and that's exactly what happened

Dana International performing in the Eurovision final, Tel Aviv, Israel, May 18, 2019.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Netta Barzilay’s 2018 victory in the Eurovision Song Contest was an event of national import. Israel’s 70th anniversary, celebrated with great pathos about two weeks before the contest in Lisbon, was dwarfed in comparison to Barzilay’s victory, which brought Eurovision to Israel for the third time in its history.

Upon her return to Israel, Barzilay received honors reserved for national heroes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited her to his office and crowed alongside her to the dance of the winning song “Toy.” Netanyahu probably forgot, or perhaps suppressed, the way he behaved when transgender singer Dana International won in 1998. He was the prime minister then too, but he didn't call Dana International. Not all winners are created equal.

Netanyahu, who is very much in tune with the feelings of Israeli society, understood the national need to hold Eurovision in Israel. His public embrace of Barzilay was no coincidence. Even his choice to retreat at the last moment from splitting Kan, the Israel Public Broadcasting Company, whose establishment “eluded him during Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, stemmed from the understanding that such a step could harm the chances of holding Eurovision in Israel.

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And still, Netanyahu tried to put every possible spoke in the wheels of the corporation. Traditionally, it’s the host government that pays for the contest's production. This year, the cost of hosting it in Tel Aviv was estimated at 110 million shekels ($31 million). No public broadcasting organization has such reserves, certainly not Kan, which only began to stand on its own feet after Barzilay’s victory.

Netanyahu, whose obsession with the media world has already embroiled him in two criminal cases, vehemently refused to grant the corporation a government deposit of about 50 million shekels, crucial for holding the contest in Israel.

Kan, in response, climbed a tall tree. CEO Eldad Koblenz announced that he had no intentions of taking a bank loan, and also refused a government loan, which he claimed would subordinate the corporation to the government. In the end, he was forced to give in, and Kan borrowed 110 million shekels from the banks, which it will have to return over a period of 11 years.

When you look at the big picture, the Eurovision budget is small change: 110 million shekels is a negligible sum for an event whose very existence is a tourism postcard being broadcast to 180 million viewers worldwide. And nevertheless, the tourism and finance ministries along with the Prime Minister’s Office refused to give the money to Kan, and didn’t fight to guarantee that Eurovision would be held in Tel Aviv.

Why should they? A long-term bank loan would threaten Kan’s financial independence, while enabling an impressive Eurovision production. Their gamble succeeded: The contest took place as planned, Israel found itself on the world tourism map, and on the way was even portrayed as a progressive country accepting of its minorities – one of the big lies that Eurovision managed to whitewash. Now, the day after, the cake, eaten and still whole, has been thrown in the face of the corporation.

Kan’s annual budget, for all its divisions, is 750 million shekels. If Netanyahu wants to cut it, he will be forced to do so with new legislation. The composition of the present Knesset makes it a possible mission.

The direction the wind is blowing at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street can be measured by the words of Yakov Bardugo, Army Radio political commentator and unofficial confidante of the prime minister. The day after the first semifinal, Bardugo claimed the contest was “a flop.” The reason: A rating of only 20 percent, and not the 40 percent Bardugo had expected. “For that they paid 140 million shekels?” he added.

Cutting the budget will be a painful blow for the corporation and for Kan Channel 11. Only last week, a list of the victims was published: One legal drama won’t have a second season, another season of a quiz program has been frozen, and two investigative programs will also disappear from the screen.

That is apparently Netanyahu’s sweetest victory: One TV event, which takes place in Israel once every 20 years, removed two investigative programs from the screen. The pink champagne is about to flow like water.

Kan claims that no political body has informed them as of yet about the near future's budget. Aside from the viewers, who will lose high-quality content, many Israeli television people, whom nobody pays attention to anyway in a country that devours its artists, will have to lick their wounds and find new ways to earn a living.

The settling of the confetti at the most successful production in the history of the young corporation symbolizes the rise of a new era in public broadcasting in Israel. Netanyahu may leave public life someday, but the damage he inflicted on the media organization that he himself helped establish will be felt for a long time to come.