Netanyahu boots state telecom chief in possible power play

Critics say firing of Communications Ministry director general by phone is move designed to consolidate oversight of media via key office

Then director general of the Communications Ministry Avi Berger. January 6, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then director general of the Communications Ministry Avi Berger. January 6, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired the Communication Ministry’s director general Sunday evening over the phone, in what critics labeled a political move to tighten government oversight on media and telecommunications.

The move came amid a tiff between Netanyahu and former communications minister Gilad Erdan, following a disagreement over ministerial portfolios that ultimately saw Erdan end up outside the cabinet and Netanyahu take on the role of minister in the office himself.

Avi Berger, the ministry director who received Sunday night’s phone call from the Prime Minister’s Office, was appointed by Erdan in October 2013 and spearheaded a series of reforms in the cellular, broadband and mobile internet markets.

In a bid to bring down internet costs, Berger spurred competition in the consumer broadband market by allowing users to easily switch providers — by communicating only with their new provider, not the one they are leaving — a move that came into effect Sunday, according to a report in Israeli daily Haaretz.

Another reform that went into effect several months ago enabled third-party internet providers to lease communication-giant Bezeq’s infrastructure, thereby lifting previous laws that required consumers to pay separately to the infrastructure provider and to the ISP.

Last week the Communications Ministry fined Bezeq NIS 11 million ($2.9 million) for acting to hinder the implementation of these reforms.

Those reforms and others that are yet to be rolled out may now be frozen in light of Berger’s sacking, Haaretz reported.

Netanyahu has been serving as acting communications minister from late 2014, when Erdan left the Communications Ministry to become interior minister, and will officially retain the post after Erdan signaled that he will not join the government. Ofir Akunis, a close Netanyahu ally, will serve as deputy minister in office.

Critics saw in Netanyahu’s move a power grab intended to give the prime minister increased control over the media and telecom industries in Israel.

In response, opposition head Isaac Herzog took to Twitter Sunday to censure the motion, terming it a “war on media.”

“Is Bibi learning from neighboring countries?” Herzog asked, using a nickname for Netanyahu.

“It’s a full blown war on the media. [Netanyahu] fires the Communications Ministry chief over the phone so that everyone in the studios will know who is the new boss? We won’t let him,” Herzog said.

As No. 2 on the Likud party ballot, Erdan was conspicuously absent from the list of incoming ministers after the prime minister rejected his proposal to head the interior and public security ministries – both of which were handed out to other veteran Likud members.

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