Closing Army Radio: The beginning of the end of Israel's public broadcast

There is something anachronistic about an army station in a democratic country.

A SOLDIER from Army Radio at the station in 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A SOLDIER from Army Radio at the station in 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sunday’s national lack of interest in the Labor Party primary, an event that generated enormous interest when it was first initiated in 1992 and pitted Yitzhak Rabin against Shimon Peres, is the latest sign of the party’s demise, a demise that some 15 years ago was almost unthinkable.
Israel without the Labor Party, the party that reflected the Labor Zionist ideology of many of the country’s founders, including David Ben-Gurion? That would be like Israel without sandals, or Israel without finely cut tomato and cucumber salads, or Israel without reserve duty. It would never happen.
Well, it very well looks like it is going to happen, as all polls are currently showing that the venerable party – if it does not merge with another – will not make it past the electoral threshold. And if Defense Minister Benny Gantz has his way, that will not be the only Israeli icon on its way out. Last Thursday, he decided that the time had also come to close Army Radio (Galei Tzahal).
Gantz, acting upon the recommendation of IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, said the decision came “from the need to distinguish the service of IDF soldiers from the actions of a media outlet where soldiers wearing uniform are dealing with political content.”
Gantz said the decision had to do with the IDF’s values, not budgetary considerations, and that having uniformed soldiers dealing with politics in any form contradicted the IDF’s values of remaining above the political fray.
“The free press in Israel is extremely important, and I will continue to protect it and ensure its independence,” he said. “However, the existence of a military station is not reasonable at this time.”
Indeed, there is something anachronistic about an army station in a democratic country. 
It is a throwback to a very different time and a very different Israel, with a very different media landscape.
Galei Tzahal began broadcasting in 1950, and its primary aims – as articulated in the original broadcast by David Ben-Gurion – were to serve the country’s defense and security needs as an effective means of communication to the reserve and regular army, and also as a way to teach the youth and new immigrants about Israel and the Hebrew language. It was set up as a tool to advance the Israeli socialization process.
Obviously, 71 years later, the station has outgrown those objectives, going into various different directions, one of which – political commentary – has annoyed one chief of staff after the other, stretching back to the days of Gabi Ashkenazi in the first decade of this century.
Kochavi’s predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, also tried to close the station, but he was rebuffed by then defense minister Avigdor Liberman.
One of the problems that the various chiefs of staff have had with the station is that they spend too much of their time having to deflect ricochets from ministers and politicians annoyed by what various commentators say on air.
As Razi Barkai, the host of a morning program on Galei Tzahal said Sunday on rival station KAN Bet, the chief of staff will come out of a weekly cabinet meeting with Syria and Hezbollah on his mind and be accosted by one minister or another complaining about what someone said on Army Radio. Why do they bring this up to the country’s top general? Because Galei Tzahal is a unit inside the IDF.
And more often than not, the criticism refers to commentary made by the station’s political analyst Yaakov Bardugo, an unabashed and fervent supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bardugo has spent much of the last two years blasting the judiciary, the Blue and White Party and its leader, Gantz, who happens to be the defense minister, with ultimate responsibility over Galei Tzahal.
But Bardugo is not the only problem. He may be the biggest thorn in Gantz’s side, but there are also commentators from the Left, such as Rino Tzror, whose voice drips with the same cynicism and contempt when speaking to ministers of the government or settlement figures that Bardugo’s does when speaking about the judiciary and Gantz.
This type of commentary has led one chief of staff after another to conclude that the army, which has enough on its plate already, does not need the additional headache of dealing with a radio station.
Besides, does democratic Israel really need a station under the auspices of the army?
Probably not. But Barkai raised a good point in his interview. Galei Tzahal is low-hanging fruit. Many salient arguments can be made for separating the army from the radio, but what may start as an effort to close down Army Radio may then morph into an attempt to close down all public broadcasting in the country.
If the argument is made that the army does not need a radio station, even though the station cost the taxpayers very little as its modest budget of some NIS 50 million is covered pretty much by advertisers, then one could ask why the state, in this age of cable television and Internet, needs a public radio and television channel – Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation (KAN) – with its budget of NIS 850 million. Is that, too, not anachronistic?
If Gantz wants to close down Galatz because he doesn’t like what Bardugo is saying about him, then why should Netanyahu not be able to close down KAN if he does not like what some commentators there are saying about him?
Why not? Because there is a value in public broadcast, in programming not driven solely by commercial interests.
The IDF, truth be told, probably does not need to be in the radio business. Considering the country’s defense challenges, protecting and defending the country is a big enough challenge without branching out into other venues not its own.
True, over the years the army has taken on other functions, such as educating troubled youth or providing conversion courses. But those functions could be justified as ultimately helping the army because it builds cohesion and allows soldiers to better carry out their primary task of soldiering with a clear head.
But having a station with 24/7 programming? That no longer can be justified as somehow serving the security of the state, which, after all, is the ultimate job of the army. Especially when that radio station dives into divisive political commentary.
Just as it was once impossible to think of Israel without the Labor Party – an idea, however, that many are now becoming quite comfortable with – the same is true of Galei Tzahal. But if it is eventually privatized or closed, does that mean that KAN will be next? And if so, is that really where Israel wants to go: to a place where all its broadcasting content is driven strictly by commercial interests?