At a tempestuous cabinet session Sunday, ministers sparred over plans to establish a new public broadcaster, with one Likud minister musing that there would be no point to the broadcaster going on air “if we don’t control it.”
Long-sought reforms of the cash-strapped Israel Broadcasting Authority coalesced into a plan to form the new broadcasting corporation, passed in a Knesset law in 2014 and backed by then-communications minister Gilad Erdan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who currently serves as communications minister.
The new corporation is slated to take over and expand current public broadcast offerings, including the IBA’s radio and TV stations. Under the 2014 law, the corporation is exempted from oversight rules that apply to most public corporations, severely limiting the ability of politicians to appoint its senior staff or interfere with reportage.
That legally mandated independence has raised hackles in the cabinet.
When Netanyahu announced last month that he would delay the launch of the new corporation until mid-2017, nearly a year after the original planned launch date in September 2016, many interpreted the move as an attempt to find ways to curtail its independence.
Netanyahu said the corporation’s professional staff was unprepared logistically to launch in the fall of 2016, but lawmakers from both left and right, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party, suggested the delay was meant to create uncertainty over the corporation’s establishment in order to weaken it.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu brought to a vote a new proposal, backed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, to delay the establishment of the corporation only until January 1, 2017, with an option to extend the delay until the end of April.
The decision, which will come to the Knesset as an amendment to the law that established the corporation, was passed in the cabinet vote that followed — but not before ministers shouted at each other over the political allegiances of the new broadcaster, according to transcripts of the meeting obtained by Channel 2.
Culture Minister Miri Regev, a populist who has demanded “loyalty” from theaters and other cultural institutions that receive state funding, told the cabinet, “What’s the point of this corporation if we don’t control it? The [communications] minister [Netanyahu] should control it. What, we’re going to put money into it and then they’ll broadcast whatever they want?”
Regev’s comment led Erdan, the former communications minister, who now serves as minister for public security, to retort angrily, “You have control over plays at Habima [theater] or any theater that gets state money?”
Bennett also responded, “You’ve lost control of this thing, so you want to close it. Why not just admit that?”
Regev then complained about plans to extend the term of the corporation’s current director, Eldad Koblentz, by two more years, calling the move “underhanded.”
By that point, the ministers’ voices were raised.
“What ‘underhanded?’ Do you even know what you’re talking about?” Erdan demanded. “What do you think, this law is for Miri Regev?”
Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, also of Likud, said the government was establishing a public broadcaster, not a mouthpiece, and would thus not have a say in professional appointments or the content of broadcasts.
At a briefing Sunday evening to diplomatic reporters, Netanyahu said he “did not share” Regev’s view that the government should control the content of news broadcasts, but added, “The question of [ensuring] a plurality of views is a difficult one, and I’m not sure what the solution is.”
In the Knesset
The tensions in the cabinet reflect broader tensions over the new corporation in the Knesset.
On Sunday, Coalition Chairman MK David Bitan (Likud) proposed a bill that would cancel the new corporation altogether and leave the original IBA intact.
“Why isn’t [the new corporation] already broadcasting?” he demanded in a Channel 2 interview. “We’ve been delaying and delaying [its establishment] because they’re not ready. They can’t pull off this assignment,” he said.
If the bill gains support in the Knesset, it could leave a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the new corporation’s head. The aging IBA has already been subjected to drastic manpower and budget cuts in recent years in preparation for its replacement, including the early retirement and firing of hundreds of employees.
MK Mickey Rosenthal, of the opposition Zionist Union faction, slammed Bitan on Sunday, asserting that the “bill won’t move forward. This won’t pass.”
But, he charged, “the [new] corporation will be weakened by it. The best journalists, who are thinking about moving to the new corporation, will hesitate, so it will be a public broadcaster that won’t be as critical or serious.”
Rosenthal praised the new corporation, and charged that the current government “lost control of the process. There are independent managers, journalists who don’t work for anyone. So now Bibi [Netanyahu] is sending his MKs to attack the corporation.”
Erdan echoed the opposition’s criticism, tweeting on Sunday: “MK Bitan’s bill to cancel the founding of the public broadcasting corporation I have worked on is unfortunate, a mistake. I hope the prime minister forcefully clarifies that he opposes this initiative.”
Bitan seemed to confirm the suspicions of the government’s critics, noting on Sunday that the slated location of the new corporation’s headquarters, Modi’in, was part and parcel of what he found troubling with it.
The new body is being staffed by “friends bringing friends. All the Tel Aviv journalists are going in there. So it’s moving to Modi’in, and then will certainly move on to Tel Aviv,” he charged. “It’s a lost cause. The media is against Likud.”
The corporation’s establishment has caused friction across more divides than that of left and right.
At the cabinet meeting Sunday, Science Minister Ofir Akunis read the names of seven of the new corporation’s reporters, noting that they all wore kippot and complaining that they belonged to the religious-nationalist camp of the Jewish Home party.
“There are no Likudniks there,” Akunis charged. “No periphery, no Mizrahim [Jews from Muslim lands].”
He turned to Jewish Home’s ministers at the cabinet table: “Jewish Home supports this corporation because you’re pushing national-religious people into there.”
Erdan shouted back, “Only an ass judges a job that’s half done.”
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of Jewish Home, also shot back at Akunis, “Stop with your lies already! Learn to control yourselves and stop complaining. You’re a bunch of crybabies. You have your very own newspaper; what are you complaining about?” The latter was a reference to Yisrael Hayom, Israel’s largest daily, funded by the billionaire Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, of Shas, then complained that there are no Haredi, Sephardi or periphery journalists in the new corporation. “Those people feel like strangers in the Israeli media. I represent people who always feel like they need to be protected from the media. I’m willing to give a prize to whoever finds in the mainstream Israeli press a Haredi journalist wearing a black kippa. There isn’t one.”
In response, Shaked reportedly noted the name of one Haredi reporter in the new body.
“It’s a politburo,” charged Zionist Union’s MK Shelly Yachimovich in the wake of Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “The government of Israel sat and went over names of reporters, decided who’s ‘for us’ or ‘against us.’ This isn’t something you can imagine in a democratic country.”
Erdan, Shaked, Bennett and Gamliel abstained in the cabinet vote.