Analysis: Eurovision debacle isn't Israel's 'Hallelujah' moment

In 1979, IBA didn't have the funds to host the Eurovision. But in 2018, everyone is just playing games.

People celebrate the winning of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 by Israel's Netta Barzilai with her song "Toy" , Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 13, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/CORINNA KERN)
People celebrate the winning of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 by Israel's Netta Barzilai with her song "Toy" , Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 13, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/CORINNA KERN)
In 1979, Israel pulled off the unthinkable: it won the Eurovision song contest for the second year in a row. Gali Atari and “Hallelujah” took home the top prize in Jerusalem just a year after Izhar Cohen and “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” won in Paris.
But the Israel Broadcasting Authority was strapped for cash, and didn’t think its budget could cover hosting the competition two years in a row. Ultimately, the government declined to step in with extra funds, and the 1980 Eurovision contest was held in The Hague instead.
And as an already extended deadline for the first round of Eurovision funding looms this week, Israel is inching closer to repeating 1979 – even though this is 2018.
In 1979, the IBA was facing a host of challenges. Ultimately, the broadcaster’s board of directors decided that it couldn’t find the funds to host the competition for the second year in a row.
Why? Because it needed to “devote all its resources to preparations for the age of color,” according to a Jerusalem Post report in August 1979. Then-IBA chairman Yosef “Tommy” Lapid said that “in its present state, television cannot both switch over to color and undertake another Eurovision special without causing harm to programming.”
The 1979 Eurovision broadcast was one of Israel’s first ever in full color, and the IBA didn’t fully transition from black-and-white programming until 1983.
While the government weighed expanding the IBA’s budget to allow for the contest to occur, it ultimately decided against it.
Now, 40 years later, is Israel going to repeat the events of 1979?
For weeks now, KAN, the current public broadcaster, has been engaged in a war of words with the government over funding for next year’s competition. Ministers are pointing fingers at the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation and officials at KAN are blaming the government.
Despite the current game of chicken being played, the most likely outcome is still that the government and the IPBC will come to an agreement on the funds. But getting to this situation – with a two-week deadline running out on the clock – should be embarrassing for all parties.
This is 2018, not 1979. Netta Barzilai’s rousing pop anthem “Toy” could hardly be mistaken for Atari’s “Hallelujah” and a transition to color broadcasting is not on KAN’s agenda.
And after Barzilai won in May, every government official from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Culture Minister Miri Regev and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara took to social media to proclaim that the contest was finally coming back to Israel. The ministers took victory laps and Regev and Kara even sparred over whose ministry would play the biggest role in planning the contest.
But when it came time to cough up the cash? Silence.
Israel’s GDP in 1979 – a 30-year-old country still reeling from a series of wars – was around $20 billion. Today, that figure is more than $350 billion, and it would be tough to claim the Israeli government can’t manage to come up with the funds.
As Labor leader Avi Gabbay pointed out on Monday, “whether the government will fund the deposit, or the IPBC will fund the deposit, it’s meaningless. It’s the same money – it’s our tax money either way.”
Whether or not Israel made the right decision in 1979 is still up for debate. But turning down the 2019 competition over political squabbling would be a grave and disappointing mistake.