Amid coalition fallout, ‘rehabilitation’ of old public broadcaster looms

Likud-led bill asserts shutting new corporation will save hundreds of millions, but it would cost a further 300 jobs

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and MK David Bitan attend a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, October 31, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and MK David Bitan attend a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, October 31, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Despite escalating tensions within the governing coalition, Likud lawmakers are moving forward with plans to dismantle a new public broadcasting corporation and focus instead on “rehabilitating” the existing Israel Broadcasting Authority.

In 2014 the Knesset authorized closing the IBA and replacing it with with a new Broadcasting Corporation. Now, with millions spent and the new public broadcaster poised to go on air, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to preemptively shut it down.

After a day of heated exchanges in which party leaders sparred over the new plans, coalition chair David Bitan officially presented the Knesset late Monday night with his proposal to cancel the previous legislation, on the stated grounds that shutting the new corporation and streamlining the existing IBA will save the government money in the long run.

The explanation to the bill cites millions of shekels wasted on compensation for IBA workers, many of whom have signed contracts with the new broadcaster. Bitan claims the plan will save some NIS 1.8 billion ($468 million) in 2017-2018, a figure that has been ridiculed by the Finance Ministry as well as Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, who shepherded the original law when he served as communications minister.

The Israel Broadcasting Authority building in Jerusalem on March 6, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The Israel Broadcasting Authority building in Jerusalem on March 6, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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. The original law granted the new corporation greater editorial independence than the IBA had, exempting it from government oversight rules that apply to most other public corporations and severely curtailing the ability of politicians to intervene in content and senior staff appointments.

Speaking at the Knesset opening session Monday, Netanyahu rejected those claims, saying he simply wanted to strengthen the existing broadcaster. “We will rehabilitate the Israel Broadcasting Authority and we will do it with financial responsibility,” he told the Knesset plenary.

But negotiations being led by Likud MK Yoav Kish, revealed Tuesday by Army Radio, suggested that “rehabilitation” will mean more drastic cuts to the IBA. The IBA’s several trade unions are reportedly being pushed to accept a further 300 redundancies and a 15 percent cut in salaries across the board.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon broke his silence on the issue Monday, threatening to torpedo the effort by vetoing the bill.

Kahlon, a former communications minister from Likud who later struck out to form his own party, boycotted a planned cabinet vote on the issue Sunday, forcing Netanyahu to delay the poll for a week. He also skipped the prime minister’s Knesset speech on Monday.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset, October 31, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset, October 31, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett also said Monday that he would oppose the new bill.

Under coalition agreements, the parties must vote in favor of all media reforms backed by Netanyahu. But it was not immediately clear what that would mean for parties opposing the cancellation of the corporation, which has yet to begin broadcasting.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog slammed Netanyahu in his Monday speech at the Knesset opening, accusing him of leading “a coup” against Israeli democratic institutions, and especially the media.

“You do not cease from meddling with the free press, which is the heart of a democracy. You are toying with it, tagging and diminishing it,” he said during a scathing, wide-ranging indictment of the prime minister.

Even President Reuven Rivlin waded into the political fray, warning against government intervention in the media.

“Those in favor of a public broadcasting authority cannot turn it into a trumpet of the commissars, and those who oppose a public broadcasting authority should come and state a clear opinion,” he said. “Those who want a public broadcasting authority must ensure that it is unbiased across party lines.”

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