Gantz’s party threatens to veto bill allowing Ben Gvir to censor foreign media

Newly revised legislation would grant far-right National Security Minister Ben Gvir the power to define networks as security threats as a precondition of their closure

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Illustrative: Foreign and Israeli journalists stand on a hill overlooking the Gaza Strip in the city of Sderot, southern Israel, October 19, 2023. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Foreign and Israeli journalists stand on a hill overlooking the Gaza Strip in the city of Sderot, southern Israel, October 19, 2023. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A far-right lawmaker’s push to grant National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir the power to designate foreign media outlets as national security threats sparked fierce pushback from members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet on Tuesday, with Minister Benny Gantz’s National Unity faction threatening to veto the controversial legislation.

During a meeting of the Knesset National Security Committee, Chairman Zvika Fogel of Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party presented lawmakers with an amended draft of a temporary wartime measure allowing the government to censor foreign media.

The draft legislation, which passed its first reading in the Knesset last week in a 25-4 vote, originally granted the communications minister the power to shutter foreign networks operating in Israel and confiscate their equipment if the defense minister identifies that their broadcasts pose “an actual harm to state security.”

The new version instead envisions Ben Gvir making the final determination, in consultation with the National Security Committee.

According to Channel 12, National Unity Party chair Ze’ev Elkin informed coalition whip Ofir Katz that his party will no longer support the bill unless the decision is reversed and the authority is returned to the Defense Ministry.

In response, Katz told Elkin that the wording of the bill is not finalized, and will be voted on by all coalition members prior to its implementation.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir leads an Otzma Yehudit faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Addressing the committee on Tuesday, ministry staffers stated that they had not had time to examine the last-minute changes, with some expressing opposition to the legislation as legally problematic.

“It would be correct to leave the Defense Minister as the authority that approves the closure of the media body,” a National Security Council representative told the committee, after a Justice Ministry attorney warned that the law raised constitutional issues.

If ultimately passed into law, the bill — which would also allow for the censoring of a targeted network’s website — would pave the way for Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi to follow through on his threat to shut down Qatari news channel Al Jazeera, which he has said is working against Israel’s defense interests and fueling anti-Israel sentiment.

It is unclear whether the new law is actually what is needed to ban Al Jazeera. It is widely understood that Israel has refrained from taking the step of closing the network largely so as not to anger Qatar, Hamas’s patron, which funds the channel and is deeply involved in attempts to broker a deal that would free Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

In November, Karhi alleged that Al Jazeera had “photographed and published” the positioning of IDF forces, “broadcast military announcements by Hamas,” and “distorted facts in a way that incited masses of people to riot.”

Last week, the IDF published images and documents recovered in the Gaza Strip which it said showed that Mohamed Washah, a Palestinian journalist working for Al Jazeera, also appeared to be a commander in Hamas’s military wing.

Undated photo allegedly showing Al Jazeera reporter Mohamed Washah in the Gaza Strip, (IDF; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“In the morning, he’s a journalist on the Al Jazeera channel, and in the evening, a terrorist in Hamas!” wrote Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee, the IDF’s Arabic-language spokesman, in a Sunday post to social media platform X.

The post included photographs apparently showing Washah training in the use of anti-tank weapons, as well as working with other weapons and a drone.

Karhi has previously taken aim at domestic media as well, threatening to halt government advertising in “Bolshevik abomination” Haaretz and promoting a far-reaching communications reform that critics assert undermines the freedom of the press.

In an interview with Channel 12 published on Monday, Karhi declared that he intended to revive a modified version of his proposal, which was shelved due to the war, based on feedback from critics.

Emanuel Fabian and Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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