Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said he has kept the communications portfolio to himself because he knows he can withstand the desire to “curry favor” with the press.
“I understand there are politicians who want to curry favor with some members of the media who want to maintain a monopoly over what the public sees and hears,” Netanyahu said at a Likud faction meeting.
“And that’s why I took upon myself the job of communications minister,” he added, insisting he could withstand “all the pressure and all the attacks.”
Responding to allegations that he has been seeking to control the press, Netanyahu insisted he was merely trying to expand competition in the media market.
The cabinet on Sunday voted to push back the opening of a new public broadcasting authority until 2017, months after the original planned launch date in September 2016, which many interpreted as an attempt by Netanyahu to find ways to curtail its independence.
In a tempestuous cabinet session, ministers sparred over plans to establish the broadcasting company, and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev mused that there would be no point to the broadcaster going on air “if we don’t control it.”
Netanyahu rejected that statement, and on Monday said, “There is talk of control of the media? Competition is the absolute opposite of control.”
Increasing competition is “an important process for Israel’s democracy,” the prime minister maintained. “It’s no secret that for years a large part of the public was excluded from the Israeli media. They, and their opinions, do not receive adequate representation, and occasionally do not receive any representation at all in the TV studios and news broadcasts.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said Monday that Netanyahu is “trying to become the Israeli Fidel Castro and wants to create a media that is submissive, degraded… to turn Yedioth Ahronoth into Yedioth Netanyahu, to turn Army Radio into Netanyahu Radio.”
In pushing for a delay in opening the public broadcaster, Netanyahu has said the corporation’s professional staff is unprepared logistically to launch in the fall of 2016, but lawmakers from both left and right, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party, suggested the delay was meant to generate uncertainty over the corporation’s establishment in order to weaken it.
Bennett’s Jewish Home party and Likud squabbled on Monday, with the latter accusing the right-wing party of fighting “to preserve the left’s hegemony in the media.”
The Jewish Home party, in response, harshly criticized Netanyahu for seeking to broaden his coalition via the inclusion of opposition parties, and his handling of plans to reform the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
Haviv Rettig Gur and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.