Last Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Communications Ministry director-general Avi Berger.The next day, Zionist Union party and Opposition leader Isaac Herzog posted a rant about this on his Facebook page. “[Netanyahu] is waging a war on the media with all his might,” he wrote.Later, Herzog addressed the move during a Zionist Union faction meeting, calling it “reminiscent of Israel’s neighbors who long ago forgot the role of the media.” And then he specified one such neighbor.See the latest opinion pieces on our page“Perhaps Netanyahu doesn’t like [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, but he is undoubtedly learning his tricks,” Herzog said, warning the prime minister not to tamper with Israel’s freedom of the press.It is not clear why Netanyahu dismissed Berger so abruptly. There are two main rumors circulating that, if true, provide partial answers.
The first has to do with the semi-scandal surrounding Netanyahu’s failure to give former communications minister Gilad Erdan a portfolio in the new government. Erdan, a long-time Netanyahu loyalist and Likud party front-runner, was expected to receive a choice post. When he didn’t get one, many eyebrows were raised. Berger, whom Netanyahu just sacked, was appointed by Erdan in October 2013.The second rumor about Berger’s dismissal is that it has to do with Israel’s only landline provider, Bezeq.As late as last week, before the new government was sworn in, the Communications Ministry imposed a large fine (NIS 11 million) on the phone company for its monopolistic attempt to prevent the opening up of the broadband market to competition. This was Berger’s doing. It was one of many planned reforms he had in store for Israeli telecommunications.It may or may not be Netanyahu’s tendency to curb competition in his inner circle when he feels threatened by an up-and-coming political star. It is therefore possible that Erdan, and by extension Berger, became casualties of the prime minister’s ego.It is highly implausible, however, that Netanyahu would purposely block reforms that would stimulate competition in the market. Indeed, yesterday a reform went into effect that allows telecommunications companies to compete for our business, while using Bezeq’s Internet infrastructure to do so, and enables consumers to switch Internet providers easily and with no cost.How this story unfolds remains to be seen.But one thing is immediately apparent: Herzog’s audacity is as limitless as his rage at having lost the election.His repeated assertion that the Likud-led government “does not reflect the will of the people” is merely laughable, as the ballot box indicated. But his likening Netanyahu to Erdogan is more than slanderous. Press freedom in Israel is absolute. The only caveat relates to the likes of Herzog himself, whose party’s platform includes support for a bill that would shut down Israel Hayom for being pro-Netanyahu.Furthermore, if it weren’t for all the help he received from the media during his campaign to unseat Netanyahu, he barely would have had the mandate to head the opposition, let alone win the election.In Turkey, the situation is somewhat different.A report released earlier this month by the İstanbul Institute’s Center of Media and Communication Studies paints a dark picture of Erdogan’s reign of terror over the press.According to the report, “Although it is known that the media in Turkey have never enjoyed a free and competitive environment, the accumulation of power in a single party and even a single leader over the past years has increased the pressure on the press in an unprecedented way.”In addition, “While media owners that support the government are rewarded with public tenders, the opposing ones are punished. These punishments come in the form of taxes, lawsuits and sometimes as sanctions from the Radio and Television Supreme Council.”And these are Erdogan’s “mild” means of intimidation.A more pernicious method is the use of the legal system to jail journalists and make them fear for their livelihoods and their lives. Yes, Erdogan likes to invoke Turkey’s “Anti-Terrorism Act” as grounds for persecuting and prosecuting members of the media who don’t toe his line.When Herzog compares Netanyahu’s firing of a single official in a government ministry to Erdogan’s persistent abuse of power to silence criticism, he is actively abetting Israel’s worst enemies in their efforts to defame and delegitimize the Jewish state – you know, the one he so desperately wants to lead.If further proof were needed that he has no business doing so, this is it.The writer is the web editor of Voice of Israel talk radio (voiceofisrael.com) and a columnist at Israel Hayom.