The PM’s game of chicken worked. He beat his rivals in the battle over the state broadcaster, and caused ‘chaos’ in Israel’s media landscape
- Times of Israel
Sword of Damocles, 1812, oil on canvas. Richard Westall. Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Public domain)
For the past two weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appeared to some to be acting like a paranoid lunatic. Hoping the attorney general would hold off an indictment against him in two ongoing corruption investigations, he had surely, his critics said, manufactured the political crisis over the future of Israel’s new public broadcaster in order to force his coalition partners to quit the government and go to new elections.
Or perhaps, unable to let go of a grudge against his current finance minister for quitting the Likud and stealing 10 of his Knesset seats, he was seeking elections as a form of revenge against Moshe Kahlon, who he knew would be damaged even more than his own party by a snap ballot.
Maybe he was even being pushed by his wife and son who, prone to emotional and rash decision-making, were telling him that the country saw him as the weak partner in the coalition. He must go to elections to prove to his political rivals that he, and only he, sits at the top of Israel’s “House of Cards,” they were whispering. Again, according to the critics.
How else could his threat to dismantle the government in order to liquidate the new broadcaster make any sense.
Yes, the country forgave him for going to elections over a different media issue two years ago, when he is said to have been infuriated by dissent over the Yisrael Hayom bill. That legislation, which was never approved, is currently at the center of one of the investigations into the prime minister, who allegedly offered to help pass the bill in a quid pro quo deal with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes.
But surely Israelis wouldn’t forgive Netanyahu again for calling elections after not getting his way. Would they? As several ministers in his own cabinet have pointed out, most of the public don’t even know the new broadcasting corporation exists. So why go to the polls about it? And most importantly, elections would not prevent it from beginning transmission on April 30, as required by law. Netanyahu could only torpedo the new broadcaster through fresh legislation. Elections would in fact ensure the opposite result to the one he was ostensibly seeking.
What on earth was he up to?
Netanyahu’s coalition, as any in Israel’s history, has been no stranger to crises in the 20 months since the government was sworn in, having quashed a number of potential hazards that could have spelled disaster. But the deal signed Thursday between Netanyahu and Kahlon to strip Israel’s new public broadcaster of its entire news division ended what seemed to be the most real threat, thus far, of its collapse.
‘Netanyahu got exactly what he wanted. He has created absolute chaos in the public media’
It also proved that Netanyahu didn’t want elections at all. His true goal was to cripple the broadcaster. He was playing chicken after all.
Netanyahu and Kahlon have publicly clashed for months over the planned launch of the new broadcaster, which was set to have unprecedented editorial independence. After supporting the 2014 reforms that created “Kan,” Netanyahu led efforts to bury it. Kahlon, however, opposed Netanyahu’s plans to instead revamp the ailing predecessor, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, disparaged as increasingly costly and irrelevant.
Two weeks ago, after Netanyahu publicly berated Kahlon at a so-called “coalition bonding” event, the two men reached a compromise that would have seen Kan go ahead on April 30. Netanyahu had agreed to drop his opposition in exchange for Kahlon’s support for legislation that would roll back some of the key reforms and give the government increased oversight of all television and radio stations in the country.
But in an astonishing about turn, Netanyahu said just days later that he had “changed his mind,” and reportedly told ministers that unless the broadcaster is aborted, “we’ll go to elections.”
Having thrown his own coalition into turmoil, he promptly left the country for a week-long trip to China. Claiming it inappropriate to deal with petty politics while signing trade deals with the most populous nation on earth, Netanyahu refused to comment on the crisis for an entire week, leaving both his rivals and allies to stew over the reasons for his belligerence.
And stew they did, pondering the conspiracy theory-esque idea of a crazed prime minister willing to do anything for his own survival and image, including sabotaging his own party’s 30-seat stronghold in the Knesset.
Even when he came back from China, Netanyahu canceled the marathon coalition talks aimed at defusing the crisis, citing ill health.
By the time he was ready to negotiate, it seems, Kahlon was ready to give him what he wanted. As with the Sword of Damocles hanging over Dionysius, the fear of Netanyahu made the finance minister beg for his own mercy.
‘Principles, not ego’
According to the deal announced Thursday, while the new broadcaster will be able to begin transmitting with just a two-week delay, it will be stripped entirely of its news division. In its stead, a separate broadcast entity will be established to deal with all current affairs offerings, staffed “primarily” by former IBA employees.
While Netanyahu has claimed to have been moved by “heartbreaking stories” from employees set to lose their jobs when the IBA closes, the deal will likely offset those saved jobs with redundancies at Kan.
‘This agreement prevented the passage of legislation that would have advocated for supervision of the press,’ Moshe Kahlon said
And with the new, separate news corporation only set to get off the ground in November, when Kan broadcasts onto Israeli televisions and radios in mid-May, the news will still be provided by the IBA.
“This whole point of Kan was to create a professional news department,” one employee who asked not to be named told The Times of Israel. “Let’s not kid ourselves, with no news, Kan is nothing.”
Kahlon, in a brief press conference aimed at presenting the deal as a success, pointed to the fact that Netanyahu had dropped his demand to pass legislation enforcing greater government oversight on the media.
“It ensures freedom of the press, freedom of speech and it is keeping with the budget. According to the framework of the agreement, there will be no political influence [on the corporation],” he said. “This agreement prevented the passage of legislation that would have advocated for supervision of the press — a bill that [threatened] freedom of the press and terrorized many journalists.”
But Kahlon exuded anything but satisfaction, sitting unusually stone-faced and abruptly leaving the press conference without taking questions.
The original reforms, advanced by then-communications minister Gilad Erdan (who is now public security minister), exempted Kan from oversight rules that apply to most other public corporations, severely curtailing the ability of politicians to intervene in content and senior staff appointments. And this is what Netanyahu was said to fear.
“Netanyahu got exactly what he wanted. He has created absolute chaos in the public media,” said the Kan employee. “It doesn’t matter any more what the deal says, Netanyahu has shown that he has no boundaries and will do anything to limit us. That itself gives him the power.”
While Kahlon sought to make clear that the deal will not affect the oversight rules for Kan or the new news corporation, the last two weeks have shown that Netanyahu’s influence over the media goes beyond the limits imposed by government regulation, according to the Kan employee.
Elections are off. Shaky coalition partners are back on board. Lurking Likud rebels have been humiliated. And opposition efforts to turn loyal allies against the prime minister have been once again relegated to the realm of the ridiculous.
After the bafflement over his motives and the rumors of mental deterioration, it appears that it was all one big ruse. Netanyahu was playing chicken with his coalition partners and media. And it was all planned according to Cicero’s understanding of the Greek legend of Damocles, “There can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms.”