What associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a mere “anecdote” at Sunday’s meeting of coalition party heads caused what briefly looked like the rekindling of a political crisis over public broadcasting.
Netanyahu expressed support for closing down all of the new Public Broadcasting Corporation except for Israel Radio, but his associates later admitted that such a move would be neither legal nor feasible.
Shas leader Arye Deri raised the idea within the context of an argument over how to fund bypass roads in the West Bank. As expected, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud) endorsed the idea and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) opposed it.
Netanyahu said the move could save the state some NIS 500 million a year, and that he and Kahlon would continue to discuss the matter within the framework of deliberations on the next state budget in 2019.
Hours later, however, coalition chairman David Bitan, who is close to Netanyahu, downplayed the public broadcasting issue in an interview with Channel 2, saying that closing the corporation would not actually save any money and the idea was off the table.
Earlier, Kara was almost entirely alone in his defense of Netanyahu’s ongoing battle against public broadcasting. He expressed his support by penning a tweet he later removed after it sparked controversy.
“I was happy to receive the prime minister’s blessing to close the Public Broadcasting Corporation – an end to the waste of the public’s money,” he wrote and then added: “I have been called upon by coalition heads to close down the Public Broadcasting Corporation.
I turned to the prime minister, and as soon as a final decision is made on the matter I will update accordingly.”
Most opposition MKs blasted Netanyahu, who also tried to block the corporation from getting off the ground in March.
Israel Broadcasting Authority ( IBA ) staff in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv protest against closure, on March 19, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)
MK Michal Biran (Zionist Union) took to Twitter to cynically charge at the premier: “The Wikipedia definition of ‘Banana Republic’ should be updated to include ‘Netanyahu and the PBC farce.’” Biran added that “there are no words to describe the shamelessness and absurdity of this story. Every time it seems that all the excuses are over, Netanyahu comes up with new, made-up claims that no person in their right mind can accept.”
MK Ksenia Svetlova, who also acts as chairwoman of the Knesset’s lobby for the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, had a similarly angry reaction. “Bibi, enough’s enough. Anyone who fights the media to such an extent probably has a lot to hide.
This rude interference won’t end here. When Netanyahu is done with the Public Broadcasting Corporation, Israel Radio’s turn will come, as well as that of any other media outlet that doesn’t align itself with Bibi’s messages.”
MK Yoel Hasson, chairman of Zionist Union faction, also spoke out about Netanyahu’s decision to go after the Israeli public broadcast.
“The Israeli media is Netanyahu’s punching bag, and to our dismay it’s becoming a thing of course and an agenda for this current government,” he charged. “Be it a spin to distract from investigations [into the premier’s conduct] or true bad intentions, we demand that the Israeli government stop dealing with political fortifications and survival.”
Hasson also lamented that “the citizens of Israel are in dire need of a new priority list that would place them at the top, as civilians as well as people. The disparity between the government’s occupation with nonsense and the existential needs of the people is becoming clear today more than ever.”
The Union of Journalists in Israel also referred to the report as another attempt to distract from important national issues.
“The ink has still not dried on the Supreme Court decision to freeze the surreal, redundant and harmful law to split up the Public Broadcasting Corporation and here the prime minister and his people are trying to hand it another blow to distract from the developments in the investigations [against Netanyahu]. It’s another cynical move by the prime minister, who can’t kick the bad habit of abusing the PBC and its employees,” it said in a sharply worded statement.
The corporation, known as Kan, went live in May after months of negotiations and several delays in the air date.
The deal to create the corporation, which replaced the Israel Broadcasting Authority was a political compromise that separated the news division from its other broadcasting operations. In May, the High Court issued a temporary injunction preventing the news division from splitting off, and is expected to issue a permanent ruling in November.
Kan responded that it will continue its broadcasts and operations as usual.
“Kan is continuing as usual, according to the law and with the full power of high ratings compared to the past, a digital reach of millions, a quality alternative to commercial broadcasts and savings of hundreds of millions of shekels of public funds,” it said in a statement.
“We invite viewers to enjoy the five new shows that will hit the airwaves on Kan11 [TV station] this week, as well as the independent news broadcasts that are clean of political or commercial interests.”
Ice, the website that covers Israeli media, set out to check Deri’s claim that the public broadcaster was receiving low ratings.
According to figures from Ice, Kan’s average ratings for September were 5.6% of viewing households, which is 20% higher than the same period in 2016 (when it was the IBA). Ice also noted that the 8 p.m. news broadcast on Kan is now seen by 4.9% of viewing households, which is 25% more than the same period last year.
IBC journalists and employees reacted to the news on social media with some surprise and typical Israeli dark humor.
“I knew we’d return to routine, I just didn’t know how quickly it would be,” tweeted Melech Zilbershlag, a presenter for Kan’s digital platform, referring to the return to post-holiday work.
Amichai Stein, Kan’s tech correspondent, said Kara’s tweet “gave me unsuccessful deja vu,” while Shimon Aran, its diplomatic correspondent, wondered “again, the same saga?... It would be such a waste. We’ve gone through endless hardships and agony.”
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