A provocative interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Channel 20 was being probed Sunday by the Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting to determine if it fell beyond the scope of the station’s license because it constituted news content.
During the interview, Netanyahu launched a tirade against the mainstream media, which he accused of running a political witch hunt against him under the guise of reporting on a series of corruption investigations.
Council chair Yifat Ben-Chai Segev ordered the body’s supervision and control department to look into the 20-minute segment broadcast last Thursday.
Netanyahu is being investigated directly by police in two affairs known as Case 1000 and Case 2000. Case 1000 concerns expensive gifts he allegedly received from wealthy friends, while Case 2000 deals with an alleged quid pro quo deal he discussed with the publisher of a major newspaper to push legislation against a competing daily in return for more favorable coverage.
A third graft probe, known as Case 3000, is exploring possible corruption in a multi-billion shekel purchase by Israel of naval ships and submarines from a German shipbuilder. Although Netanyahu is not a suspect in that case, his personal lawyer David Shimron is a key suspect in the investigation.
In addition, Shlomo Filber, the director-general of the Communications Ministry, is under investigation over securities offenses related to a merger involving the national telephone company Bezeq. Israel’s State Comptroller released a report last week that accused Netanyahu of failing to originally disclose his close ties with Bezeq head Shaul Elovitz, and raised suspicions that the prime minister — who at the time held the post of communications minister — and Filber made decisions at the ministry in favor of the Bezeq.
“We are in the midst of an unprecedented media campaign to smear me with empty accusations with the intention of replacing the government,” Netanyahu told Channel 20 at the start of the interview.
The media was behaving like the Soviets, he charged. “That is the method of the fake news,” he said. “They know one thing: I am the obstacle preventing the rise of the left, so they have to get rid of me.”
The media, he continued, has adopted an attitude in which he is considered “guilty until proven innocent, and even guilty when proven innocent.”
The prime minister explained his main reason for agreeing to talk with Channel 20 was that “I wanted my version to be heard by the public. I don’t want to turn the other cheek.”
“Since nearly all of the media has joined the campaign, they don’t let you speak,” he added, and said that other channels ask him questions during interviews but won’t let him finish a sentence to give his answer.
When other leaders are interviewed by Israeli media, Netanyahu claimed, giving as examples Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and former US president Barack Obama, they are given an easier time and asked questions like “What is the secret of your charm?” — an apparent reference to an interview with Obama shortly before the end of his term by Channel 2’s Ilana Dayan.
Netanyahu asserted he has known both Shimron and Filber for years and that they are both “honest, ethical people.”
“I am sure that nothing will stick,” he said. “Aside from anything else, just because a person is investigated doesn’t mean he is guilty.”
Nonetheless, “there is no connection between their matters and mine,” Netanyahu declared and recalled that the Justice Ministry had found no wrongdoing in his handling of the Bezeq merger and that the attorney general had clarified that he is not a suspect in the submarine case.
Yet the media keeps raising his name in connection with the investigations, Netanyahu complained. “What hypocrisy, what resentment.”
In the “submarine affair,” Shimron, Netanyahu’s personal attorney and cousin, is suspected of trying to sway Israel to purchase the craft from the German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, which he represented. Netanyahu pushed for Israel to buy the vessels against the wishes of the Israel Defense Forces and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Police have said Netanyhau is not a suspect in the investigation, which has also seen the arrest and questioning of former deputy head of the National Security Council Avriel Bar-Yosef and ThyssenKrupp’s Israeli agent Miki Ganor.
Netanyahu asserted in the interview he didn’t know about the ties between Shimron and Ganor and that he has never even met Ganor.
He also defended the submarine purchase as an “existential need” for Israel and condemned the media as “irresponsible” for using such a sensitive issue as the submarines to attack him.
Channel 20 began broadcasting in August 2014 as a station focusing on Jewish tradition with a conservative bent. Sometimes referred to as Israel’s Fox News for its right-of-center programming and public claim of offering a countering view to the “mainstream media,” it is not authorized to broadcast news items.
Before the recent interview, Channel 20 has paid out hundreds of thousands of shekels in fines for other infractions, including for broadcasting news content, since it went on air in 2014.
Under the terms of its current license, Channel 20 can only show news items if the council approves the broadcast in advance. The channel has sought to expand its rights to include news content.
Although permission was granted for the station to show news in December 2016, that was on condition of implementing certain appointments and other supplementary measures, a process that has not yet been completed.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.