Closing Channel 10 would endanger freedom of expression and democracy, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin warned on Wednesday.

“The government cannot allow itself to put economic efficiency before values in a democratic society,” Rivlin said.

Speaking in an emergency plenum meeting called by Kadima during the Knesset’s summer recess, Rivlin, who was communications minister when the channel was launched in January 2002, called for the government to spread out payments of Channel 10’s debt.

“An Israeli television channel cannot close just because the government refuses to allow it to make payments on its debt, which is not even especially large,” the he said.

“We must be smarter and more just.”

Rivlin added that Channel 10 was “an existing fact” and its future was not only a matter of economics, but would have a major effect on the media market.

“I had the privilege of inaugurating the channel as communications minister, and even then I was concerned that the conditions of its tender were impossible. There are economic issues, and it is important to make sure people pay their debts, but it is more dangerous to harm the foundations of democracy and the media market in Israel,” he said.

Channel 10 decided on Tuesday to lay off 150 workers – about a third of its staff – after a meeting over its debt repayments to the state ended without resolution. The channel owes NIS 45 million to the state, and the Second Broadcasting Authority plans to withdraw its financial guarantees by Sunday, which would result in the station’s closure.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said this week that he would recommend the SBA and Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon give Channel 10 two months to pay off the debt.

Wednesday’s Knesset meeting began with opposition leader Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) calling Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “Bibi in Wonderland,” and saying he is “alienated and living in a fantasy kingdom.”

“Thousands of people are no longer able to support their families. They cannot sleep at night, because of uncertainty about whether they can bring food home.

Do you even care?” Mofaz asked Netanyahu, who was not in the Knesset at the time.

For Netanyahu, the Kadima chairman said, the unemployment numbers were just statistics, and he did not see the people behind them.

“I hope this discussion will be aired on television tonight, particularly on Channel 10,” Mofaz said. “I know it bothers the prime minister, but I hope Channel 10 will be able to report on the opening of the Knesset’s winter session [on October 14] as well.

“Does the firing of the channel’s 150 workers bother Netanyahu at all? Does he care about the public interest or his own, personal interest?” Mofaz continued.

“To Netanyahu, the middle class’s refrigerators are full, their mortgages are paid and they can all have a picnic. Bibi is in Wonderland.”

MK Nachman Shai (Kadima), a former television reporter, said the reason for Channel 10’s possible closure was not financial.

“The government wants to strangle Channel 10 because of its sins. The network is being punished for publicizing certain stories,” Shai said, referring to “Bibitours,” an investigative report on the station about allegations Netanyahu double- billed travel expenses.

Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen responded to the opposition’s complaints about the economy, saying “In general, Israel’s economic situation is very stable compared to the rest of the world.”

Cohen added that Israel was doing well despite the economic downturn in Europe, and the level of growth had remained relatively high.

Nadav Shemer contributed to this report.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger