Cellfire and brimstone
Hebrew media review

Cellfire and brimstone

Cellcom’s deal to buy out Golan Telecom has the press up in arms; Netanyahu’s appointee as media czar ruffles feathers

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Ran Baratz (screen capture: YouTube)
Ran Baratz (screen capture: YouTube)

After several years of reprieve from burdensome cell phone bills, the Israeli press dreads the possibility that Golan Telecom’s proposed sale might ring the death knell for competitive telecom.

Israeli communications giant Cellcom signed a deal to buy Golan Telecom, a rival upstart which shook up the market in 2012, for NIS 1.17 billion ($300 million). The deal faces opposition from Finance Ministry officials, but the final word will ultimately require approval from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his capacity as communications minister. Should the deal go through, Haaretz reports, the merged company will control approximately 37% of the market, larger than the runner up, Partner, with just 27%.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who in his previous capacity as communications minister enabled the telecommunications reform which allowed Golan Telecom to break into the market, wrote an urgent letter to the acting anti-trust chief saying the Finance Ministry opposes the deal and that approving the merger would be “a grave blow to competition in the cellular market and bring about a rise in prices,” Israel Hayom reports.

Yedioth Ahronoth barely contains its outrage, employing as many wordplays as possible to describe how Golan is making its “exit at our expense” and is “hanging up in our face.”

Golan Telecom’s founder, Michael Golan, once told Israelis to stop being suckers and paying higher rates to cell phone companies. Yedioth Ahronoth says that now that Golan is making his exit, “it’s not clear what will be the new prices customers will be asked to pay in the future — and if we’ll go back to being suckers.” The paper tells its readers in a FAQ section that “there’s a great chance that [the merger] won’t be approved.”

In Israel Hayom, Hezi Sternlicht calls Thursday “a black day for competition” in the cell phone market in Israel. He calls on Netanyahu to instruct the head of the Communications Ministry “to remove as soon as possible the restrictions on new competitors entering the field.”

Ever a champion of the free market, he says it’s the government’s responsibility to eliminate barriers to competition in the market. “Only the entry of more, new companies to the market will ensure that prices won’t go back creeping upwards,” he says. “The public needs competition, and in order for it to be sustainable the state needs to eliminate barriers so that [the public] itself creates it.”

Meanwhile, the brouhaha over Ran Baratz’s appointment as Netanyahu’s media chief also makes front page headlines after his Facebook remarks about US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry ruffle some feathers.

According to Yedioth Ahronoth, Baratz also “opened his big mouth” about author David Grossman, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon as well as the American leaders. Kerry called Netanyahu demanding explanations. Haaretz reports that Netanyahu told Kerry that he would reconsider Baratz’s appointment as his new media czar (which Netanyahu later denied on Twitter, saying merely he would deal with the matter). Baratz won’t join Netanyahu on his upcoming trip to the United States next week because of the comments, the paper says, including calling Obama an anti-Semite and saying Kerry behaves like a 12-year-old.

Sources in Jerusalem who spoke to Yedioth Ahronoth believed that Baratz’s appointment wouldn’t go through in the end. It reports that fellow Likud ministers in Netanyahu’s government even advised him not to appoint Baratz to the post.

Uri Misgav writes in a Haaretz op-ed that Baratz’s comments should come as no surprise, remarking that the would-be Netanyahu spin doctor is part of the “Israeli Tea Party.”

“Baratz is a settler from Kfar Adumim and founder of the Mida website, a source of pride on the ideological right and part of an American model that has been scrupulously reproduced,” Misgav says. “Mida takes its holy ideological work seriously. It leaves the transparent propaganda to the daily Israel Hayom and the mockery and incitement to social media networks.”

Trying to get Baratz replaced by another appointee “won’t make any difference,” Misgav says, “in any case, someone similar would replace him.”

“As far as the settler right is concerned, the diplomatic and public diplomacy corps is just another platform that must be taken over. Just like the army, the Shin Bet security service, the media and academia. Baratz is an appropriate casting choice to market Israel’s current policies, and also to represent Israel’s current profile.”

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