One day during the 2015 election campaign, the Likud Party posted a commercial on YouTube. Styled after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the commercial showed a group of people sitting in a circle and complaining how reforms initiated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had undermined their companies.
One actor impersonated a worker from the Israel Port Authority, who said that he used to get paid NIS 50,000-NIS 60,000 a month for three hours of work. “Then the reform came along, and all of a sudden we had to really work,” he whined.
Next was an “employee” of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. She complained about legislation that dismantled the IBA and set into motion the establishment of the “Ta’agid” – the Israel Broadcasting Corporation.
“From whom will we now collect money for no reason?” the IBA employee asked the group.
Next was an actor dressed as a Hamas terrorist, who in a poor attempt to speak Hebrew with an Arab accent, said that he was also there “because of Bibi” – a reference to the Gaza war fought the previous summer.
At the end of the commercial, Netanyahu appears on screen and says that only the Likud and a government led by him would continue to push through economic reforms and confront the security challenges looming on Israel’s horizon.
After the commercial aired, the Likud came under fire for likening port workers, IBA employees and Hamas terrorists. While the party eventually apologized, the message was clear: Netanyahu was taking credit for the IBA reform, since he believed it would win him votes.
He was proud of that achievement.
That was two years ago. Since his reelection, Netanyahu has done almost everything legally possible to undermine the media in Israel.
Immediately after receiving the presidential nod to (again) form a government, the first step in Netanyahu’s campaign against the media was to hold onto the Communications portfolio for himself.
He then inserted a clause into the coalition agreement requiring that all his partners – Kulanu, Shas, Bayit Yehudi and United Torah Judaism – vote however he decides on all matters related to communications and the media. For some reason, these parties readily agreed, forfeiting their independence.
And this is how the clause reads: “The government will lead comprehensive reforms in the communications industry. The Likud, Kulanu and other members of the coalition commit to supporting these reforms. In addition, none of the parties of the coalition and their members will support legislation related to the media without the approval of the minister of communications.”
Last summer, during the fivehour briefings he was giving the press, Netanyahu explained that the clause was intended to open the mass media market in Israel, that he wanted to diversify the news market – an admirable goal – and give licensing to new TV channels to broadcast news. Regarding the IBC, he said that he regretted its establishment, but that it “slipped through” due to the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, the same period when the bill establishing the IBC passed through the Knesset.
“Slipping through” is an interesting excuse for something that the prime minister had to raise his hand to support during three votes in the Knesset. It is an interesting excuse considering how he had no reservations about using the bill as part of his election campaign.
So what changed? No one really knows. Netanyahu hasn’t fully admitted what it was that made him change his mind and decide last month to take the country to the brink of an election because of the IBC.
There are various theories. One is that Netanyahu didn’t like some of the appointments that were made at the higher echelons of the IBC, particularly the hiring of Gil Omer, the IBC chairman, and Eldad Koblentz, its CEO. Omer worked for a few years at Yediot Aharonot, the same paper whose publisher is entangled in one of the ongoing corruption cases against Netanyahu.
Koblentz used to head Israeli Educational Television, an appointment he received from Netanyahu’s political nemesis Gideon Sa’ar.
In other words, the heads of the new channel once worked for Netanyahu’s rivals.
The second theory is that Netanyahu felt the channel would become left-wing and act like the rest of the Israeli media, which Netanyahu is convinced is obsessed with toppling him.
There are two problems with this theory. The first is the mystery surrounding Netanyahu’s media paranoia.
After all, he has been elected prime minister four times, and could break David Ben-Gurion’s record as Israel’s longest-serving leader. Basically, even if he is right and the media is aligned against him, it doesn’t seem to stop him from winning. On the contrary – it might even be helping him.
The second problem is that calling the IBC “left-wing” doesn’t make sense when you look at the hires it has made since starting up in early 2015. Kalman Libskind, the Maariv columnist and one of the more outspoken right-wing ideologues on the Israeli media landscape, was supposed to get a daily radio show and a TV slot as well.
Other journalists Netanyahu is taking a microphone away from are Yoaz Hendel, his former spokesman and the chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, as well as Emily Amrusi, the right-wing columnist for Israel Hayom and former spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria.
There are others like Roi Sharon and Zev Kam, two reporters who come from religious-Zionist homes and who cannot be accused of being left-wing journalists.
If anything, Netanyahu’s decision to shut down the IBC effectively means that Israelis will hear fewer right-wing voices in the media. What Netanyahu – the so-called leader of the Right – is doing, is effectively weakening his own political camp.
In August, I wrote a column blasting an article in The New York Times that accused Netanyahu of crushing Israel’s free press. I stand by my criticism of the article. I argued that the continued existence of Israel Hayom – the free newspaper Netanyahu’s friend and donor Sheldon Adelson established for him 10 years ago, and which the Times said threatened Israel’s free press – has weakened some of the other daily newspapers in the country, but none has shut down.
They have lost money, but they are all still in print.
As the editor of this daily Israeli newspaper, I wrote that while I am troubled by Netanyahu’s fixation with the press, I do not feel that we are not free to write what we want.
To the contrary: as regular readers of this paper know, we frequently criticize the government and its members in our daily editorials.
Do we get angry phone calls in response from government officials? Yes. But, has The Jerusalem Post changed its editorial line as a result? Of course not.
The free press in Israel is also still not yet (emphasis on “yet”) in danger.
While politicians in Israel get upset over what the media report about them, that happens everywhere in the world and has been the case since newspapers started printing in 1605.
What we should be concerned with is the obsessive nature of this government’s handling of the IBC affair. In addition to Netanyahu, there are other members of his party who have taken a page out of Joe McCarthy’s playbook in their campaign against the IBC. Likud MK David Bitan, the coalition chairman, admitted to tracking the Facebook pages of journalists hired by the IBC, and Miri Regev, a Likud minister, said she didn’t understand how the state could fund a public broadcasting authority without controlling its content.
And then there are the members of Netanyahu’s coalition. Back in August, when Netanyahu started his campaign against the IBC, Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett said they would prevent the closure of the new broadcasting corporation.
But where are they today? They could have stopped Netanyahu but they decided to play along, and as a result are just as much to blame for the closure of the IBC’s news division, its core product.
Interestingly enough, according to a 2016 Media Intelligence Service study, countries with well-funded public broadcasting tend to have more freedom of press. More money correlates with more freedom. This is likely the result of governments needing to be more transparent and careful due to the existence of more media to monitor them.
As the study shows, corruption is under more control when public broadcasting is successful.
“While one cannot argue for a direct correlation between public broadcasting and good governance, one can point to a connection between a strong public broadcasting network and a healthy democratic society,” explained Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, from the Israel Democracy Institute.
Seemingly, our leaders do not want a strong and critical press.
They seem to not want a press that serves as democracy’s watchdog.
The IBC affair shows just how fragile is the relationship between the government and the media in Israel. The press in the United States has also been under attack since Donald Trump entered politics.
But in America there is the Constitution, and the First Amendment that protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
The president can attack, but he cannot easily change the Constitution.
In Israel, we don’t have a constitution.
We have 69 years of “understandings” of the way things should work and how the press should be free. If anything, the IBC affair shows how fluid this situation is, and how if we are not vigilant, Israel’s free press might really be in danger.