Finance minister threatens veto to save new broadcaster from Netanyahu

Setting up showdown with prime minister, Moshe Kahlon says he won’t throw away millions to resuscitate existing body, as Likud is seeking to do

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)

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon broke his silence amid a brewing legislative battle over the future of public media in Israel Monday, threatening to torpedo an effort led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dismantle a new public broadcasting corporation.

Kahlon’s threat, made just before a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee, sharpens statements made by lawmakers from the Jewish Home and Kulanu parties over the weekend saying their parties opposed closing the new, not-yet-on-air broadcasting corporation, which is supposed to replace the ailing Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and sets up a head to head showdown with Netanyahu.

Kahlon said he was opposed to the costly zigzagging by the government over what to do with the new corporation, named Kan, citing the billions of shekels that he says would be wasted were it to be shut down.

“Canceling the corporation would mean losing NIS 1.7 billion ($442 million) immediately and NIS 370 million ($96 million) a year. Whoever wants to introduce a law next week and advance it will have to make sure that there is strong public broadcasting and understand where the money is going to come from,” he said Monday, according to comments published in Hebrew media.

“Personally, I don’t think I can throw this money away and throw around millions. I know the value of a shekel. That’s the story. I’m not willing to give up, and if necessary, I will not hesitate to veto the government,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t skim from other ministries budgets to pay for the move.

Kahlon, a former communications minister and Likud apparatchik who later struck out to form his own party, boycotted a planned cabinet vote on closing down Kan Sunday, forcing Netanyahu to delay the poll for a week.

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

The newly built control room at the offices of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, in Tel Aviv. August 29, 2016. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90
The newly built control room at the offices of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, in Tel Aviv. August 29, 2016. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90

The nascent corporation was created by government legislation in 2014. The law gives it greater editorial independence than the IBA, 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.

In July, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who is also the current communications minister — decided to extend the life of the IBA and delay the new corporation’s launch.

Of late, a senior Likud lawmaker, David Bitan, has been pushing for new legislation to cancel the previous legislation, on the stated grounds that shutting the new corporation and streamlining the IBA will save the government money in the long run.

Last week, Bitan claimed that his plan would save some NIS 2.5 billion ($658 million), a figure later ridiculed by the Finance Ministry and Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, who shepherded the original law when he served as communications minister.

The proposal was also termed “sleight of hand” by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

Coalition Chairman David Bitan during a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset on July 11, 2016 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Coalition Chairman David Bitan during a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset on July 11, 2016 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Government critics say the real reason for Netanyahu’s turnaround is that he fears the corporation’s political independence.

An unnamed source in Likud told the Netanyahu-aligned Israel Hayom daily on Saturday that the new broadcaster “has turned into a broadcaster for Noni Mozes and the left,” referring to the owner of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, which is regularly critical of Netanyahu. The source also alleged that employees at the new body were picked by “left-wing figures and Mozes’s associates.”

On Wednesday, corporation heads said they would be ready to broadcast on January 1. They also said that the corporation has already invested some NIS 140 million ($36 million) on original productions and on establishing studios in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Modiin and Beersheba.

“Behind all the figures and the deliberations are people, who have been taken on and who face being sacked,” Kahlon said.

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