PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu has spent hours upon hours holding off-the-record meetings with the Israeli media in recent weeks. With the exception of cabinet meetings, I don’t believe there is another subject that the prime minister has invested so much time and effort in over the same period. There is, however, no cause for surprise; for Netanyahu, the media has become the message.
When Netanyahu put together his most recent government, he saved for himself the communications portfolio. At first, the move seemed devoid of any logic. It was one thing to act temporarily as foreign minister until new coalition partners could be found, but the Communications Ministry has never been on the list of desirable portfolios for a prime minister. All of Netanyahu’s predecessors have held additional portfolios, but for the most part they would take the defense and foreign ministries.
In the early 1980s, I served as spokesman at the Israeli Embassy in Washington together with Netanyahu who was a diplomatic attaché. We had many conversations about the media and in particular the Israeli media. Netanyahu, then in his early thirties, was hungry for power, influence and fame.
He enjoyed the patronage of the ambassador at the time, Moshe Arens, who told me that one day Netanyahu would become prime minister. In our conversations Netanyahu presented a liberal, pluralistic worldview, saying, “There is room for a plethora of media, and competition between them should be encouraged.”
Thanks to his polished English, his broad knowledge and people skills, Netanyahu very soon made himself the go-to guy for senior journalists, commentators and analysts. Later, as ambassador to the UN, Netanyahu would become a star, a frequent guest on TV who worked his charm on the New York media and elites.
The Israeli media was slow to pick up on Netanyahu’s potential – and the danger inherent in him – but he gradually became a prominent figure both in the US and in Israel.
His relationship with the Israeli media began to develop when he was surprisingly voted head of the Likud and then prime minister.
But since then, his relationship with the media has soured. After countless personal affairs, the media no longer cuts him any slack and he, for his part, has become hostile toward it. In Netanyahu’s perception, his electoral victories have come against the media’s will and he has tapped into a longstanding belief in the Likud that “the media is against us.” This belief has remained unchanged since the Likud first came to power in 1977 until today, despite the fact that it has been the ruling party for the majority of that time. The view has taken root in Likud that the media is leftwing, hostile and serves Netanyahu’s political opponents.
Netanyahu’s feeling of being ostracized led to the launch of a daily paper, the freebie, Israel Hayom, backed by his friend Sheldon Adelson. Israel Hayom became a huge success, passing Yedioth Ahronoth as the widest circulation daily in the country.
It also led to a dramatic decline in the price of advertising, dealing a harsh blow to the media market and in particular to Yedioth, an important political player.
Netanyahu was in fact likely motivated to hold on to the communications portfolio by proposed legislation to ban the distribution of free newspapers – known as the Israel Hayom Bill – that passed an early hurdle in the Knesset in 2014 but never progressed.
He didn’t want any more surprises.
ON THE eve of the last elections in March 2015, the rivalry between Netanyahu and the media reached its peak. The prime minister felt that he was about to lose power among other things because of the media’s hostile coverage of him. Three days before the elections he launched a communications blitz, recruiting the ostensibly hostile media, turned the tables and won the elections.
But Netanyahu didn’t forget. After the elections he set about a major reform of the communications market and he now pulls the strings on both public and private broadcasts.
There is no media outlet in Israel that escapes his influence.
Together with Gilad Erdan, the public security minister, Netanyahu decided to disband the Israel Broadcasting Authority and replace it with the new Israeli Broadcasting Corporation. The truth is that the IBA suffers from mismanagement and corruption, but it is also on the whole a courageous media outlet, and courage and journalistic dedication are not what the prime minister wants.
The new broadcasting corporation got underway with severe birth pangs, but it transpired that the change was not revolutionary.
Netanyahu saw that it was going to be more of the same, came down with a case of buyer’s remorse and tried to backtrack.
He didn’t succeed. The managers of the new corporation made it clear they were already in mid-process, while public opinion was incensed, the Knesset was up in arms, and the Finance Minister said he wouldn’t pay out hundreds of millions of shekels to keep two parallel public broadcasters up and running.
Netanyahu turned his attention to commercial television. Channel 2 is much stronger than its younger rival Channel 10, but a government-sponsored bill would require the News Corporation, which produces the highly watched Channel 2 news broadcasts, to be sold to one of the channel’s two franchisees, Keshet and Reshet. With three commercial channels and three news corporations, ratings will be much lower.
In order to pull regulatory strings, the prime minister merged the Second Authority for Television and Radio with the Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting as a branch in the Communications Ministry. The upshot is that we no longer have a public authority with financial and executional independence.
The communication minister will from now on be able to control the merged entity via a public board of directors that he will appoint. This is no less than a nationalization of regulation of commercial television and radio, and the dream of setting up an Israeli equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission that could even replace the Communications Ministry itself has been buried.
But the crusade goes on. Educational TV – which at the moment remains under the auspices of the Education Ministry – is likely to be swallowed up by the new Broadcasting Corporation when it finally comes on air in 2018. The prime minister has also expressed negative opinions of the highly popular Army Radio channels, but for the moment they remain under the authority of the Defense Ministry. People close to the prime minister, such as Culture Minister Miri Regev, have said explicitly that military stations have no place in a democratic society. No word was heard in response from Netanyahu.
THE PRIME minister studiously avoids being interviewed. He is acutely aware of every word that is said or written about him and responds at lightning speed. In order to circumvent traditional media, he is active on social media, where he can write whatever he pleases. Despite the fact that he does not give interviews to the Israeli media he finds ways to get his positions across. Recently, after signing a new military aid agreement with the US, he deftly used his ministers, MKs and senior officials in a well-orchestrated chorus to fend off criticism. This proves that Netanyahu has not lost hope and understands that without the media he is left exposed and defenseless. But more than that, it is a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” He is determined to change the fundamentals of the Israeli media in order to finally gain its sympathy.
In that way, he differs from the diplomatic attaché at the Israeli embassy in Washington 35 years ago. He no longer believes that the existing Israeli media landscape loves him, so he simply wants to replace it.
Netanyahu’s new communications policy is the prime challenge facing Israeli democracy.
Without freedom of speech there is no media and without the media there is no democracy.
While social media provides a platform and means of expression for each and every individual and the public arena has never been so open, its influence is limited. Netanyahu continues to preach for media pluralism, but in actuality the result is inverse.
Instead of removing regulatory obstacles, new ones are being added. The media, even under economic and regulatory siege, refuses to surrender and continues to maintain its independence.
Is this on account of the Jewish tradition of free speech and intellectual independence? Or is it the rebellious Israeli character? Probably a bit of both. Israelis must stand up and be counted. We need a vibrant, confident media that has teeth. Israel’s image as a democratic Jewish state is being tested. The prime minister’s strategy must be rejected. A plethora of portfolios is one thing, but stifling free speech is another.
This is our moment of truth. We are all called to rally round the flag!Nachman Shai is an MK for the Zionist Union party. He is a former IDF spokesman and has a PhD in political science and communications
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