Smoothing over a political tussle, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday dropped his demand to delay the opening of Israel’s new public broadcaster, as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon agreed to support a bill that would increase government oversight of the new media outlet.
Netanyahu had set off a coalition fight with Kahlon the previous evening, at an event that was designed to strengthen coalition camaraderie, with a call for a six-month delay to the public broadcaster, which was set to go live in April.
By Thursday morning, speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv, Kahlon revealed that his relationship with the prime minister had deteriorated amid clashes over the new broadcaster, called Kan.
“Kahlon and Netanyahu are no longer an item,” he said.
By Thursday afternoon, the two had reportedly come to an agreement for transmissions to begin in April in exchange for Kahlon backing a plan to repeal key reforms aimed at ensuring editorial independence for the new corporation.
The original reforms, advanced by then-communications minister Gilad Erdan (who is now public security minister), exempted the new broadcaster from government oversight rules that apply to most other public corporations, severely curtailing the ability of politicians to intervene in content and senior staff appointments.
The new bill, which is being drafted by the Communications Ministry, would give the communications minister full authority to appoint the chair of the broadcaster’s governing council, who would in turn be able to appoint nine members of the 11-member body. The other two members would be sitting government ministers, under the plan.
Last week, the current communications minister, Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi, defended the new plan. “There’s this talk as though the only thing politicians want is to take more and more power,” he complained.
“The politicians appoint the chief of staff of the army, God forbid!” he said sarcastically in an Israel Radio interview Thursday. “And the head of the Shin Bet [Israel’s domestic intelligence service], which defends our freedoms, and the head of the Mossad. Why can’t they appoint the head of a public media oversight body? Politicians are elected by the people, and if they don’t like them, the people know how to replace them. It’s called democracy.”
In 2014, the Knesset passed broad reforms that would close the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which politicians at the time described as increasingly irrelevant and costly, and replace it with the new broadcasting corporation. It originally called for the establishment of the new broadcaster by March 31, 2015.
Likud officials have claimed that nixing the new corporation would save the state some NIS 2.5 billion ($658 million), a figure later ridiculed by the Finance Ministry and Erdan. Critics from both the coalition and the opposition say the real reason for the move is Netanyahu’s fear of the corporation’s political independence. But following efforts by Netanyahu to delay the opening until 2018, and a Likud-led bill to cancel the legislation altogether, the corporation’s management announced in October that it would be ready to begin broadcasting on January 1, 2017. It was later delayed again until April.
The new council would also take over oversight for Israel’s commercial and cable broadcasting media, which are currently regulated by institutions separate from the main broadcasting authority, creating one overarching government regulator for all broadcast media.