PM says he was 'trying to break left-wing media monopoly'

Netanyahu heard intervening in TV market while already under investigation

PM tells communications minister to ‘save’ right-wing Channel 20 in 2017 recording; Labor calls for investigation, Blue and White accuses him of turning Israel into Turkey

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with former communications minister Ayoub Kara at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with former communications minister Ayoub Kara at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was still intimately involved in directing matters at the Communications Ministry in late 2017, despite having relinquished the communications portfolio earlier that year amid an ongoing criminal investigation into his alleged collusion with major media outlets, Channel 13 reported on Monday.

A leaked recording from late 2017 that was broadcast by the network showed Netanyahu screaming at then-communications minister Ayoub Kara, insulting him and demanding that he shutter the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, the public body that oversees cable and satellite stations in Israel.

The council also oversees the satellite television provider Yes. Netanyahu is suspected of having pushed former Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber to approve a merger of Yes with telecom giant Bezeq, a development that eventually went through, earning Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch hundreds of millions of dollars.

In that case, Netanyahu is suspected of an illicit quid pro quo, in which Elovitch ensured favorable coverage of Netanyahu at Walla, Israel’s second-largest news site, which he also owned, in return for the prime minister’s intervention in regulatory matters.

In the recording, Netanyahu can be heard demanding that Kara “save” the right-wing Channel 20, which lost its bid to produce, manage, and broadcast the Knesset channel following a court appeal by competitors in late 2017. “They’re not allowing it to broadcast news [programs],” Netanyahu says bitterly about restrictions that Channel 20 was facing.

Communications Minister Ayoub Kara at a press conference in the northern city of Safed, July 10, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

He also verbally abuses Kara, screaming “have you lost it?” in a harsh tone when the Druze politician describes efforts to collaborate with then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked. Shaked, who currently heads the Yamina party, used to be close to Netanyahu but the two had a falling out.

Long a staunch Netanyahu loyalist, Kara nonetheless lost the prime minister’s backing before the Likud party primaries in February, for reasons that remain unclear, and failed to get a high enough spot on the party’s slate to enter the Knesset. He later reportedly lashed out at some party members as “Nazis” — a term he denied using — before quitting his ministerial post in June and accusing the ruling party of prejudice against the Druze community.

Kara reacted Monday to the report by calling it “despicable” and saying “the very fact that my phone and the prime minister’s were tapped raises the suspicion of a plot to harm me the prime minister and the right-wing government, and I will not agree to that.”

In a tweet, he threatened to file a police complaint to find how the conversation was leaked.

“I did my job in the most honest, upright and dignified way,” he added.

Yair Netanyahu, son of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Flash90)

Yair Netanyahu, the premier’s son, took a swipe at Kara by responding: “Wasn’t it you who recorded [the conversation]?”

The prime minister’s political opponents were quick to criticize his actions. Former prime minister Ehud Barak of the left-wing Democratic Camp called him the “most corrupt prime minister in the history of Israel.”

The centrist Blue and White Party issued a statement accusing Netanyahu of “acting to undermine and constrict the independence of the media and turn Israel into Turkey.”

The Labor-Gesher Party called for an investigation into Netanyahu, stating that he respected “no red lines and no boundaries. The law and the attorney general’s guidelines are not even a recommendation to him.”

Netanyahu took to Twitter to defend himself on Monday evening, tweeting that “all of the prime minister’s actions are fully in line with the Supreme Court’s guidelines after leaving office as communications minister.”

He argued that his defense of Channel 20 was an attempt to push back against left-wing attempts to muzzle conservative outlets.

Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing in Case 4000, February 26, 2018. (Flash90/File)

“The prime minister was perfectly allowed to engage in the actions presented, as he has fought his entire life for a diversity of opinions in the communications market — an inexcusable sin in the eyes of his opponents,” he tweeted, adding that he had not intervened in matters relating to either Elovitch or Bezeq.

In a separate statement, Netanyahu asserted that his “determination to make changes and break the left-wing monopoly in the media had turned him and his family into targets.”

Netanyahu has long been a harsh critic of the Israeli press, posting the faces of prominent journalists on election billboards, presenting them as enemies of democracy and calling out what he terms “fake news.”

He stepped up his rhetoric on Saturday night, accusing several figures affiliated with Channel 12 of carrying out a “terror attack against democracy,” due to the network’s critical coverage of the cases against him.

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