Netanyahu as Chief Censor

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours Nahariya, January 8, 2020.

The prime minister makes an unmistakable pretense of regarding himself as the Israeli media’s editor in chief, the one in charge of deciding what should make the headlines and what should not even be published. This desire to control it all is what led to two of the three indictments drafted against him – the one in Case 2000 (the Yedioth Ahronoth case) and Case 4000 (the Bezeq-Walla case). Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t satisfied with his role as the greatest influencer of Israeli reality, he also wants to be its writer, editor and rewrite man; to decide when news is bad and when it’s good, in accordance with his personal and political needs.

The biggest damage caused by the three election campaigns that have been imposed on Israelis within a year is that they’ve made telling the truth a crime – not just about the Netanyahu cases, but about real life. The ministers got an illustration of this on Sunday at the weekly cabinet meeting, when treasury officials presented a shocking forecast that the budget deficit for 2021 would be 4.2 percent of GDP. If this estimate is correct, there will have to be aggressive budget cuts and tax hikes made, in addition to those that will be necessary later this year once a new government is formed, to return to the government’s deficit target.

Netanyahu responded to the data with denial, arguing that the deficit will be much lower than that predicted by the treasury and the Bank of Israel, and will be between 3 percent and 3.3 percent. Some of the ministers took his side and yelled at those Finance Ministry personnel who dared bring them bad news. And the treasury forecast is less severe than that of Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron, who believes Israel is marching toward a deficit of close to 5 percent.

Portraying treasury officials as saboteurs in the service of political rivals is no surprise. That’s exactly what Netanyahu and his special envoy for immunity matters, MK Miki Zohar, did to Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, for his refusal to block the establishment of a Knesset House Committee to debate Netanyahu’s immunity request.

This is not a good time for telling the prime minister or his cabinet the truth. Take, for example, the Tel Aviv light rail. It’s a project that’s supposed to be inaugurated in 2021, and its construction has caused problems in recent years for anyone trying to get anywhere in the greater Tel Aviv region, making the wait for the launch of the rail’s first line, scheduled for October 2021, quite nerve-wracking. So is the project on schedule or not? The answer is no. Rami Belnikov, chairman of Metropolitan Mass Transit System, the company building the light rail, announced last week to the board that there will be at least a year’s delay in launching the line.

The Transportation Ministry went crazy and convened an urgent meeting, attended by Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Finance Ministry officials and company executives, from which a call was issued to prevent any delays in launching the line. Smotrich told TheMarker that, “right now there is no understanding regarding a delay, until the professional process is completed. If it turns out that a delay is expected, we’ll publicize it.” When will that “professional process” be completed? Presumably after the election.

This practice has repeated itself with a series of state comptroller reports meant to be published a few months ago but delayed because of the September election, and will now be released only after the election in March, thanks to State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman. That might be legitimate to do once, but not three times.

Netanyahu claims that Kahol Lavan has no accomplishments, which is why its motto is “Just not Bibi.” But his attempts to improve unflattering data, hide uncomfortable forecasts and basic information helps confine the debate to Bibi -or-not-Bibi. The bad news won’t disappear, however; it will merely await the next government to fill our news reports in the spring.

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