Although English is the most universal language in the world, it may very well disappear from Israel's air waves - at least on a temporary basis. The Israel Broadcasting Authority's Management Committee is due to vote next Monday on a cost-cutting emergency plan that would close down most Channel 1 and Israel Radio programs, including the IBA News in English and the English radio news. Steve Leibowitz, editor of Channel 1's English IBA News, was informed by senior management on Tuesday that all programming with the exception of Hebrew language news will be suspended for an indefinite period of time to save on costs.
Losing our voice (editorial)
Employees on collective wage agreements and personal contracts will continue to be paid their basic salaries, but will have to take leave. Freelancers would be the most hard-hit by the plan.
The absence of staff at the IBA premises will have an immediate cost-saving effect on regular expenses such as maintenance, electricity and telephone as well as the extras involved in program production costs.
IBA spokesperson Linda Bar confirmed that at its meeting last Monday, the IBA Management Committee decided to postpone its vote on the administration's drastic proposal until heads of all IBA departments had been consulted.
"It's a dire situation," she said. "The IBA has never faced a crisis of such proportions."
Bar told The Jerusalem Post that in the event the proposal is accepted, the only remaining programs on Channel One would be Mabat, Seeing the World and Politika.
Radio stations Reshet Bet, Reshet Gimmel and Radio 88FM would remain operational because they bring in revenue, Bar said, but foreign language and culture programs are likely to disappear.
Leibowitz, who has mounted an intensive lobby within the IBA and beyond, said that while he understood that the IBA was facing a crisis, there were at least two important reasons for not axing the IBA News. One is that outside sources have contracted to broadcast the programs abroad, which means the news broadcasts bring in income, and the other is that IBA News provides the world with a window on Israel and is an important hasbara (advocacy) resource.
On IBA News, Israeli spokespeople can rebut charges made by people who misunderstand or are opposed to Israel's policies. To close down IBA News, however temporarily, "is like shooting yourself in the foot," Leibowitz said.
A radio broadcaster suggested that closing down broadcasts was not only outrageous, but possibly illegal, as the IBA Law mandates broadcasts for immigrants.
Furthermore, broadcasts in a language they speak are essential for foreign diplomats and other international representatives in Israel.
IBA staff who could be seriously affected by the implementation of a partial blackout on public broadcasting have very little recourse. Since the resignation of former MK Eitan Cabel (Labor), the IBA has been left without a caretaker. Cabel's portfolio has reverted to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - a conflict of interest, as Olmert is also acting finance minister.
Nonetheless, Leibowitz and news anchor Leah Zinder have lobbied the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry and the office of Acting President and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik.
As a member of the IBA Management Committee 17 years ago, Itzik was instrumental in pushing through the creation of an English-language news department at Israel Television.
Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin told The Jerusalem Post that she was still familiarizing herself with the matter and would bring it to Olmert's attention.
A senior staffer at the Foreign Ministry told the Post that he was gravely concerned over the possibility that English radio and television broadcasts would be taken off the air waves.
"Israelis like to complain about hasbara. They say not enough is being done," he said. "But when something is being done, they don't follow through."
Meanwhile, Leibowitz and his colleagues are getting the message out and are meeting many outraged responses from native English speakers.
The Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, the British Olim Society and Telfed, the Association of South African Immigrants, have a mounted an e-mail protest campaign. Leibowitz said he had no doubt that other English-speaking groups would follow suit.
Leibowitz was a founding member of the IBA News team along with the late Steve Edwards, who died exactly two years ago. On Friday, a memorial service will be held for Edwards at Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha, in which friends and colleagues will not only eulogize him, but - fearing the worst - will begin advance eulogies for English-language news programs or, on a broader scale, for public radio and television.