Netanyahu's Newspeak

The prime minister feels he is working with a sense of messianism. 'Perhaps they call this the libel law,' he declared. 'I call it the law for publishing truth.'

On Wednesday, while the Knesset debated, an official delegation from the Kingdom of Tonga, headed by Lord Ma'afu Tukui'aulahi, former speaker of parliament, sat in the area reserved for honored guests. Tukui'aulahi wore a gray skirt. These guests from the South Pacific island nation listened to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking from the Knesset dais.

"I heard this talk about coercively silencing critics, and then I came here and the opposition Knesset members are sitting quietly. Everyone is afraid. Nobody says a word against the prime minister. Everyone speaks about me with the appropriate level of respect," Netanyahu stated, revealing what he and his wife say when they release their bitterness while drinking their coffee.

Netanyahu cartoon - Amos Biderman
Amos Biderman

"This morning I turned on the radio and television and opened a newspaper, and heard how everyone is closing ranks with the prime minister! Everyone! So what are you talking about? The exact opposite [of silencing criticism] is happening here, and nobody believes the thought police is taking root here. And if there is an exceptional voice, one that departs from the orthodoxy of mechanical criticism of the government and its leader, then they say it's 'a blow against democracy.'

"Forging appropriate media representation for the majority of citizens is not a blow against democracy. That is the essence of democracy. It's what was missing for many years. Otherwise, my colleagues and myself would not be here, I as prime minister and they as cabinet and coalition members."

Thus Netanyahu coined a new definition for the libel bill, which passed its preliminary Knesset reading this week. Much to the surprise of his Likud comrades, Netanyahu himself stole into the Knesset around midnight and voted for the bill. Defense Minister Ehud Barak entered the parliament with Netanyahu. In a private discussion this week, Barak declared, "I support the Supreme Court, but the media needs to be restrained."

"Perhaps they call this the libel law," Netanyahu declared in his speech. "I call it the law for publishing truth. The law is not designed for those who write facts; it addresses those who distort facts."

MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima), who opened the discussion with a comparison to Orwell's "1984," was completely on target, even though he had no idea what Netanyahu would say merely two hours later.

Netanyahu delivered a major speech, one of the most important addresses of this, his second term. In private conversations, Netanyahu and his aides recite the main idea: "What wasn't done here in 64 years has been accomplished in a single term." This is no ordinary term, Netanyahu believes. It is idealistic public service. It is a messianic calling to create a different state, a different society and different media.

All for democracy

As part of the campaign to strengthen democracy by taking control of as many media outlets as possible, Netanyahu went to war with one of his most prominent cabinet ministers, his ardent supporter Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar. Sa'ar established the coalition at Netanyahu's bidding, and he backs the prime minister. He has promised Netanyahu that, as long as they are both in politics, he will always support him.

One morning, Sa'ar woke up and discovered that the Prime Minister's Office was meddling with Educational Television, a media unit under the Education Ministry's authority. A month ago, Eldad Koblentz, a respected media personality, was selected as the unit's director general.

As in other maneuvers, the person responsible for implementing the intervention in Educational Television is Natan Eshel, Netanyahu's bureau chief. A former National Religious Party functionary, Eshel spent much of his time during the past two weeks working on matters connected to the mourning period for Sara Netanyahu's father (public officials are presumably not supposed to deal with such a private family matter ). When he has some spare time, Eshel works on strengthening Israel's democracy.

The initial explanation provided by the Prime Minister's Office was designed to allay anxieties: a number of structural changes are needed at Educational Television. The director general will be appointed afterward.

The next day, the prime minister's associates revealed the full plan: Educational Television is to be subordinated to the dying Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA ) so that both of these entities can expire together or, alternatively, turn into a joint mouthpiece for the Prime Minister's Office. The pretext was economic. The IBA will sell Educational Television's expensive north Tel Aviv real estate, thus adding hundreds of millions of shekels to its coffers, and then move ETV's offices to Ramat Aviv. The savings - hundreds of millions of shekels - will be allocated to low-income pupils.

Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein received responsibility for the IBA at the start of his term. He wanted to appoint a professional director general. Netanyahu scuttled Edelstein's candidate, and Edelstein returned responsibility for the IBA to the prime minister. Since then, Netanyahu has been in charge of the IBA. He recently appointed a director general of his liking, Yoni Ben-Menachem.

The campaign continued with the move to shut Channel 10. Here too, the relevant minister should be someone else, in this case, Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon. But Netanyahu ignores him, and Kahlon has uttered hardly a word on this matter. Everything has been worked out between Netanyahu and Knesset coalition chair Zeev Elkin. Unlike Kahlon, Elkin opens his mouth.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Sa'ar sent Netanyahu an ultimatum: Alter your course, or I'm no longer education minister. Netanyahu can't afford to lose popular Likud cabinet ministers. The battle between them is centered on status, respect and ego - and these are qualities that neither lack.

The real question is why Netanyahu is so fixated on Educational Television that he is letting it cause disputes with a political ally. The answer lies in the show broadcast during the 5:30 P.M. daily slot, "Making Order" ("Osim Seder" ), featuring journalists Ben Caspit and Gal Gabai.

The program, particularly the two weekly episodes hosted by Caspit, the well-known Maariv columnist who finds cause almost every week to lash out against Israel's first couple, is anathema to Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. They want to pull the plug on it. Thus, the issue isn't really economics, despite claims by Netanyahu's aides. The problem is Ben Caspit.

What price defamation

In the summer of 2008, then-opposition MK Gilad Erdan (Likud ) submitted a proposal for a libel bill. Erdan, offended by an uncomplimentary (and ultimately inaccurate ) profile published by Globes, sponsored a bill that proposed increasing the maximum court-imposed penalty for libel to NIS 150,000, up from the current NIS 50,000. Under the bill, in particularly heinous cases, the fine could reach NIS 300,000; should it be deliberately malicious libel, the compensation could reach NIS 450,000.

These fines were less draconian than those currently being proposed by Erdan's party colleague, Yariv Levin (NIS 1.5 million for malicious libel, when no response is solicited from the subject of a report ). Yet Erdan's proposal also featured a clause allowing a judge to issue an injunction banning dissemination of a media report, should he or she believe the story would cause damage to its subject that "exceeds the public interest, or the interest of the party publishing the report."

During early discussions of the proposal, Erdan realized that this clause was anti-democratic, so he said it would be dropped. In the end, he withdrew the bill. Levin, and MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima ), who presumably reviewed Erdan's bill, as is customary in legislative processes, didn't dare add a clause on judicial injunction in their own proposed bill.

The 26 MKs who signed Erdan's 2008 bill include MKs Israel Hasson, Shlomo Molla and Ronit Tirosh of the Kadima party. Also on the list is Prof. Avishai Braverman, one of the enlightened liberals in the Labor Party. Another signatory was MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al ).

Surprisingly, Likud MK Reuven Rivlin also signed on to the bill. Rivlin, now Knesset Speaker, is waging a fierce war against the Sheetrit-Levin bill, and violated party discipline at midnight on Monday in order to vote against it. This is the Knesset Speaker who now preaches against the ugly wave of anti-democratic and intolerant legislation being sponsored by his own faction members.

I asked Rivlin about this turnabout. He says he doesn't recall what led him to back the 2008 proposal. Maybe he was angry with some journalist, he admits. Maybe he and Erdan intended merely to frighten the media. The fact is, Rivlin says, the 2008 bill was never pushed through the Knesset. "If I signed that bill, I made a big mistake," he says.

Unlike Rivlin, Erdan fully backs the Levin-Sheetrit bill. Erdan frankly admits that his own personal experience with Globes is what prompted him to submit the original bill. He recalls how he was unable to block the offending Globes report, even though he submitted a wealth of evidence in his own defense. He was forced to borrow tens of thousands of shekels to pursue his ensuing legal suit. He knew that if he won, his compensation would be about equal to his legal fees. Thus, he launched his bill.

Ultimately, MKs sometimes legislate out of personal pain. Who on the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee voted for what Netanyahu calls "the law for publishing truth?" Sheetrit, the target of an investigative-journalism report. Ditto Avraham Michaeli (Shas ) and Yariv Levin. MK Dalia Itzik, Kadima faction chair, campaigned intensively behind the scenes on behalf of the bill. She too bears scars from investigative reports. Itzik wanted her Kadima colleagues to vote for the bill; but Kadima head Tzipi Livni imposed party discipline, demanding that the Kadima MKs vote against. Itzik violated Livni's order and abstained.

In its current incarnation, the defamation law is not necessarily an ultra-nationalist, right-wing conspiracy. Sheetrit and Itzik are left-wing opposition members. Had Livni not imposed party discipline, at least six or seven Kadima members - a quarter of the party's MKs - would have supported the bill. Livni preempted this embarrassment.