Editorial

Netanyahu Puts His Puppet in the Communications Ministry

The prime minister's decision to give up the communications minister's post is simply for show. His control of policy in the sector will continue – along with his threat to press freedom.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzachi Hanegbi.
Olivier Fitoussi

Benjamin Netanyahu, who is the prime minister, foreign minister and communications minister, announced on Friday that he would give up one of his three posts. He wasn’t forgoing it permanently, just temporarily. And it wasn’t something voluntarily; it was forced on him.

He made the move under the pressure of High Court petitions challenging his insistence on being communications minister. Amid his ties to players in the sector and the criminal investigation into his links to Yedioth Ahronoth’s publisher, and despite the affidavit denying that he had influence over the rival daily Israel Hayom, Netanyahu was willing to give up the Communications Ministry for three months. He has put it in the hands of Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi.

It’s doubtful that Hanegbi would derive encouragement from the appointment. In this dubious contest, he beat out Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev. The happy victor will now be forced to do his master’s bidding.

This fact should embarrass Hanegbi, who once was one of the Likud party’s young talents, but whose stature sank when he got tripped up over political appointments. After linking up with Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party, he later returned to Likud through the back door.

With great difficulty and through Netanyahu’s benevolence, Hanegbi climbed his way back into the cabinet, but without a significant ministry. He is totally dependent on Netanyahu and has no independent political existence without the prime minister. At the Communications Ministry he won’t be subject to the long arm of the prime minister, but rather to his short arm. A Netanyahu loyalist, Shlomo Filber, will remain the ministry’s director general and keep acting as his master would wish.

Netanyahu’s decision to give up the communications minister’s post is therefore simply for show. He will continue to control the government’s communications policy, while his direct and indirect threat to press freedom will be maintained.

At a time when U.S. President Donald Trump has shown the advantages of turning the media into an enemy of the state, Netanyahu is already well ahead of that. After earlier insisting on heading the Communications Ministry himself, and in the process holding certain media outlets hostage, he can now continue the balance of terror against them. Meanwhile, the fact that he's due to return to the top of the ministry in three months will remain a chilling, deterring factor.

Netanyahu is now fighting for his political and legal future amid the criminal investigations that threaten his government’s stability. He has been accusing the media of pressuring Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to put the prime minister on trial.

Over the next three months it will become clear if Netanyahu can kill off the new public broadcasting corporation as part of his obsessive effort to prevent the severing of public broadcasting from the politicians. Although Hanegbi has agreed to be Netanyahu’s puppet at the Communications Ministry, the High Court of Justice shouldn’t be tempted to believe this display.