The Knesset approved a bill meant to shut down the Israel Hayom newspaper in a preliminary vote on Wednesday.
“This shames the Knesset,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu muttered, walking out of the vote.
The legislation, proposed by Labor faction chairman Eitan Cabel and signed by members of every coalition party except the Likud, would outlaw free newspapers, requiring that the lowest-priced newspaper of the four with the widest circulation cost at least 70 percent of the price of the next-lowest-priced paper.
The bill defines a free daily newspaper as one that is given out without payment six days a week.
Therefore, the bill would in practice apply only to Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu paper owned by his major supporter and donor businessman Sheldon Adelson, who also contributes to Republican candidates’ campaigns in the US, and the legislation’s supporters do not deny that they are targeting that newspaper.
Views on Cabel’s proposal were split in most parties, and until the 43-23 vote, it was unclear to many whether it would pass. Of the MKs voting against the measure, 11 were from the Likud, seven from Bayit Yehudi and one each from Yesh Atid, United Torah Judaism, Meretz, Labor and Kadima. The votes in favor were made up of 12 from Yisrael Beytenu, 10 from Yesh Atid, nine from Labor, four each from Hatnua and United Arab List-Ta’al, two from Hadash and one each from Kadima and Meretz. Three Shas MKs, two each from Labor and UTJ and one each from Balad and Hatnua abstained.
The bill is to go to the Knesset House Committee in the coming days, where MKs are to vote on which committee should work on it ahead of its next vote in the plenum. Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) expressed interest in the bill going to his panel, and he would be likely to effectively bury it. Since Likud MK Yariv Levin leads the House Committee, he could easily facilitate that.
When asked whether Netanyahu would rather call an election than allow the bill to pass, a source close to the prime minister said that Levin and other Likud MKs could delay further voting on it, and this government probably won’t last more than another year before there is an election, anyway.
Speaking in the plenum, Cabel made no effort to hide the fact that his initiative to shut down free newspapers targeted one publication: Israel Hayom.
“This is a bill in favor of pluralism and multiple opinions.
It is a battle so that, in a few years, we do not become a country with only one newspaper.
Adelson wants to bury a market that is fighting for its life,” Cabel said.
According to Cabel, Israel Hayom sells advertisements at significantly lower prices than its competitors in order to run them out of business, and the newspaper does not exist because of its revenues, but rather because Adelson, a billionaire political donor to Netanyahu, funnels money into it.
“I do not oppose ideological journalism, but Israel Hayom is a unique phenomenon. It is all about the cult of personality [of Netanyahu]. Instead of being the watchdog of democracy, it is Netanyahu’s attack dog,” Cabel said.
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) responded that Iran and North Korea can learn from Cabel how to close a newspaper that they dislike.
According to MK Ahmed Tibi (UAL-Ta’al), who supported the bill, two Arab lawmakers were planning on abstaining in the vote, but were offended by Steinitz’s mention of Iran and decided to vote in favor of it.
“The idea of a parliament closing a newspaper is disrespectful to Israeli democracy, and it is dangerous,” he said.
“[Cabel is] paving the path to make closing media legitimate.”
Steinitz pointed out that there are many newspapers in the world with clear political positions, saying that the US Congress would never vote to just close Fox News (which is right-wing) and not MSNBC (left-wing).
The minister quoted a deputy attorney-general who said the bill is unconstitutional, saying he thinks the High Court of Justice will cancel the legislation if it becomes law.
Cabel interrupted Steinitz’s speech, which was significantly lengthier than his, at one point to call it a filibuster. Steinitz, a former philosophy professor, is known for his long-winded speechifying.
MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud) said that few people have been attacked in Israel Hayom as badly as himself, since he represents a clear opposition to Netanyahu within the Likud, but that the bill limits freedom of expression.
“What is this? Since when do parliaments close newspapers? Are we Bolsheviks?” Feiglin asked.
MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) abstained from the vote, saying she is not in anyone’s pocket, referring to pressures lawmakers received from both Israel Hayom and the second- most popular newspaper in Israel, Yediot Aharonot, to vote against and for the bill, respectively.
“I have no intention in taking part in a dangerous game in which two newspapers are holding the political system by the throat,” she announced before the vote. “Therefore, I will press the ‘abstain’ button to show my disgust for what is happening. I don’t work for anyone.”
Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) called the vote “a parade of hypocrisy,” saying that “MKs who claim to believe in human rights and freedom of expression chose narrow and personal interests over the basic right to free speech.”
MK Mordechai Yogev (Bayit Yehudi) said the result of the vote marked a dark day for Israeli democracy.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) recused himself from the vote, because of a conflict of interest, as his wife, Lihi, has a weekly column syndicated to Yediot Aharonot’s local newspapers, and he had his own column in its Friday features magazine for nearly two decades.