(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will relinquish the reins at the Communications Ministry for at least three months as he battles a criminal investigation related to alleged dealings with Israeli media outlets.
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) will hold the communications portfolio on an interim basis after Netanyahu declined to relinquish it permanently.
The prime minister remains foreign minister as well.
Hanegbi was one of four Likud ministers who sought the Communications portfolio.
He was a natural candidate to receive the post, because he was already given some of its responsibilities when he joined the government, as Netanyahu was deemed to have a conflict of interest at the time.
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev (Likud), who was a front-runner for the post, congratulated Hanegbi and called on him to adopt her strict line of shutting down the recently formed Israel Broadcasting Corporation, which is supposed to go on air on April 30 according to the law, replacing the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Previously, she said that the IBC was not transparent enough and did not have enough of a variety of views among its staff.
In an interview on Channel 2’s Meet the Press on Saturday, Hanegbi avoided giving a straight answer on whether he will act to close the IBC, but hinted that he would like to see the IBA continue operations.
“All of us in the Likud – except [Public Security Minister] Gilad Erdan who initiated the move [of opening the IBC, when he was communications minister in 2013] – believe that since the IBA is operating now after hundreds of employees were sent home, shutting it down it is something that we want to avoid.”
Hanegbi said, however, that the matter is now a financial issue, and it is being discussed by the prime minister and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu). “When they will finish their discussion, I will decide how to act.”
Hanegbi said that he will act independently, but that there many factors regarding the issue that should be taken in consideration. “I am not working alone here,” he said. “The cabinet is like an orchestra with a conductor, and we want to forge harmony and not an unpleasant tone.”
Hanegbi concluded by saying it is important to have public broadcasts, and it does not matter whether this will be done by the IBA or the IBC. “I will act according to the law and see what can be done,” he said and added he is not fully informed about all details and he plans to study the matter.
Netanyahu decided to give up the portfolio because of police investigations and lawsuits that raised questions regarding his interactions with senior figures in the media. On January 31, the High Court of Justice ordered Netanyahu to explain why he would not resign nor suspend himself as communications minister, in light of the alleged conflict of interest that was revealed by the investigations.
The court made the decision after a petition was filed by the Movement for Quality Government and opposition chairman Isaac Herzog asking the justices to remove Netanyahu from the post.
The prime minister is being investigated in the so-called Bibi-Noni affair, otherwise known as Case 2000, in which he is suspected of colluding with Yediot Aharonot publisher Arnon Mozes to harm competing paper Israel Hayom in return for better coverage in Yediot.
He is also being investigated in Case 1000, labeled “the gifts affair,” in which the prime minister and his wife, Sara, allegedly received hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of champagne and cigars from Israeli Hollywood movie mogul Arnon Milchan, who is also part owner of television’s Channel 10.
The Movement for Quality Government said in a statement on Friday that although it considers Netanyahu temporarily giving up the Communications Ministry an achievement, it is only the beginning. “We believe that the conflict of interest of the prime minister is so severe and profound that it cannot be healed by a temporary three-month relinquishment – even more so when it is unknown who will receive the portfolio after this period. We will continue to advance the petition and make sure that the prime minister will not hold the Communications portfolio.”
Herzog called the move “a sad joke and a temporary evasion,” and said that he would continue to act until Netanyahu relinquishes the post permanently. “He is trying to avoid the inevitable,” said Herzog. “Netanyahu should give up the portfolio indefinitely and immediately. My faction and I will move forward our petition until the court orders him to do so.”