Council for the National Interest

Benjamin Netanyahu: Media Manipulator

Jun 5 2015 / 1:22 pm

Netanyahu is now in a position to personally regulate cellular service and Internet providers, license private broadcast channels, and influence the management of public television and radio.

Bernard Avishai, New Yorker –Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his government last November to remove two obstacles. The first, much reported beyond Israel, was opposition by centrists within his government, including Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, to the “Jewish nation” bill, which would have constrained the Supreme Court’s ability to protect Arab citizens’ rights. The second—less noticed but perhaps more consequential—was a bill advanced in the Knesset to prohibit any major newspaper from being distributed for free. The obvious target of the legislation was Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, a free tabloid that’s become Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper. Adelson was reported to have lost as much as three million dollars a month on it—simply, it seems, to boost Netanyahu and his Likud Party. The day it became clear that the newspaper bill, supported by Lapid and Livni, would get a Knesset majority, Netanyahu fired his dissident ministers and called for new elections.

Netanyahu won reëlection, and the legislation’s sponsors lost their leverage. But the Prime Minister’s maneuvering for control of the news media did not end with the sinking of the bill. While forming his new government, he extracted written pledges from potential coalition partners not to vote against any legislative initiative or regulatory decision by the minister of communications, coyly implying that he might add the post to his responsibilities as Prime Minister—which he did. This role, and these pledges, position Netanyahu to regulate cellular service and Internet providers, license private broadcast channels, and influence the management of public television and radio. His defense of Israel Hayom’s supremacy in print is trifling compared with his growing power to control greater Israel’s airwaves. “Netanyahu is like a pianist who’s gathered all the keys for a keyboard,” Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political scientist who founded The Seventh Eye, an Israeli press-criticism magazine, told me. “Do we expect him not to play?”

Netanyahu’s most brazen decision as minister of communications has been the firing of the ministry’s director-general, Avi Berger, who had been preparing to reform the broadband market. The formerly government-owned telecommunications company Bezeq provides about two-thirds of home Internet access and almost all home Internet connections. Berger’s planned reform would have forced Bezeq to license its wired infrastructure to new entrants, bringing down the cost of Web access, much the way forcing Israel’s cell-phone cartel to share cellular infrastructure radically lowered the cost of mobile access. Berger also wanted all new companies to gain the right to bundle “last-mile” wiring with Internet service; Israeli customers now pay Bezeq to connect their modem to the fibre network, and also pay an Internet Service Provider, mostly likely Bezeq International, for access to the Web. Connectivity costs are about double what they are in the United States. Bezeq shareholders are not complaining.

Netanyahu announced that he intends to replace Berger with Shlomo Filber, a close ally and a former chairman of the settlers’ council in the occupied territories. Broadband markets and neo-Zionist ideology may seem unrelated, but they are not. Berger’s firing was a signal that regulatory power can be used to engender broadcasting more or less friendly to Likud’s policies, not by directly intimidating journalists but by shaping ambient pressures on owners and managers of the media companies. Not surprisingly, Netanyahu’s move against Berger prompted an immediate spike in Bezeq’s share price; Netanyahu clearly meant to put Bezeq’s owners in his debt, or at least emphasize the value of being in his orbit. Not coincidentally, the Bezeq-owned Internet company Walla! has been rumored for months to be planning a twenty-four-hour cable news channel, bundled into Bezeq’s satellite-television provider Yes, and streamed and promoted over Bezeq infrastructure. “Berger’s sudden dismissal was immediately beneficial for Bezeq, of which Walla! is a subsidiary,” Erel Margalit, a Labor Knesset member and the founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners, which has launched various media companies, complained. For Bezeq, Walla!, and its prospective cable news channel, “the conflict of interest is self-evident.”

Netanyahu’s regulatory sword is similarly poised over Channel Two, Israel’s dominant commercial television channel. Two separate media companies, Reshet and Keshet, share access to Channel Two, and jointly support the country’s leading news broadcast—the “national campfire,” as the media correspondent Nati Tucker calls it. This may seem like a peculiar arrangement—it derives from the cautious way commercial television was introduced, in the eighties—but neither Reshet nor Keshet would like it terminated. That would mean surrendering their established drawing power and sacrificing advertising premiums. It would also force each company to assume the cost of building (or acquiring) a separate news staff, almost certainly disbanding Channel Two’s veteran organization in the process. Tucker believes that the total cost of forcing Reshet and Keshet to break their arrangement would be about eighty million dollars.

Last year, the ministry of communications and the public authority governing commercial broadcasters mandated that the arrangement be terminated, so that the one big channel would become two smaller ones. The decision was ostensibly made in the interest of preserving competition, because Channel Ten, another station to which I’ll return, seemed on the verge of closing after suffering financial losses. Many suspected, however, that Netanyahu wanted Channel Two broken up not because Israel lacks competition among news media (the size of a large city, it has multiple broadcasts and Web sites) but because the station’s power to challenge his government was too great. Channel Two news showcases the news journalist Amnon Abramovich, who often skewers the Prime Minister, and its satire program, “Eretz Nehederet,” spares no one. But Channel Two also lost money in 2014, largely owing to its coverage of the Gaza war, which preëmpted commercials over many hours and days. Citing these losses, Channel Two persuaded the powers that be to defer implementation of the mandate (which it would obviously like to see deferred indefinitely). Now, however, Netanyahu is in charge of the communications ministry, which “controls the future of Channel Two’s gains and losses with a single decision,” Tucker told me.

I hasten to add that Netanyahu need not prompt the firing of his critics to get his way. The status quo works well enough for Likud’s agenda; it is enough for the media to establish what Orwell called a “mental atmosphere” that makes alternative quos seem impossible. It is enough for Netanyahu that Channel Two reports routine ministerial statements as if they were news, and appoints correspondents for “Arab affairs” (which might as well be called “what our enemies are thinking”) and for “military affairs,” who pick up where I.D.F. spokespeople leave off. It is enough to lump Arab citizens into “the Arab sector,” and to call the West Bank “Judea and Samaria,” and to speak of every insurgent act as “terror.” It is enough for stylish anchors to project a knowing cynicism, cutting guests off the way Israelis like to drive, so that discussions of the Palestinian issue descend into raised voices, special pleading, and spectacle. Channel Two, in this sense, already valorizes the most commonly expressed attitudes, which its reporters refer to as “the consensus.” That’s Netanyahu’s real victory. “I moderate my words because I’m trying not to irritate my viewers too much,” Abramovich told me.

Netanyahu is not above trying to stifle dissent when he thinks he can get away with it, though. Which brings me back to Channel Ten. It is the most liberal of the three main Israeli television channels, the edgiest in its comedy, and also the least profitable. In the past, the government has loaned money to the channel, with the understanding that the grant of a pending fifteen-year operating license would hinge on Channel Ten meeting a schedule of repayments. Originally, the broadcasting authority set the license payment at just more than four million dollars, due on June 1st of this year. But the budget committee of the finance ministry, then under Yair Lapid, determined that this payment was unreasonably high, given the channel’s accumulated losses, and readjusted the license fee at just over a million dollars. A major media investment group, RGE, led by Leonard Blavatnik—the Ukrainian-born American tycoon, and one of Britain’s richest man—recently undertook to buy a majority stake for about fifty million dollars.

But, after firing Lapid, Netanyahu became the acting finance minister, and in his last act before swearing in his new government—just ten days before Channel Ten’s license was scheduled to expire—he raised the cost of renewal back to four million dollars. Spooked, RGE withdrew from the deal. Channel Ten management immediately appealed Netanyahu’s decision to the Supreme Court, which the government, revealingly, did not contest; as I write, the sale of the channel to RGE seems back on track. But Channel Ten’s new owners are not people inclined to color outside the lines. (Blavatnik’s original fortune was made in post-Soviet mining, and he famously remained on good terms with Putin.) Netanyahu would have been pleased to see Channel Ten close down. Failing that, he shot a volley across RGE’s bow.

The last keys under Netanyahu’s fingers are public media. When I first visited Israel, during the summer of the 1967 war, there was no television to speak of, only educational broadcasts aimed at school classes and assemblies. Most Israelis got their ideological instruction from movement newspapers, and their news fix from independent broadsheets and tabloids, as well as from commercial-free state radio, run by the Israel Broadcasting Authority and funded by a compulsory yearly fee. Levi Eshkol’s government began television broadcasts in 1968; by 1972, you could walk down any street at nine o’clock, when the nightly news came on, and hear all the sets amplifying the voice of Haim Yavin, Israel’s Walter Cronkite, as loudly as if it were from the speakers of an outdoor meeting.

Formally, the Israel Broadcasting Authority still exists as a public trust, but the fee has been abolished. The public television channel, now called Channel One, has been forced to downsize and survive on advertising in a time of the Web’s disruptions (much like Reshet Bet, the premier public-radio news station, did long ago). Under Labor governments, the problem with Channel One was academic blandness and military censorship, but criticism, especially in the wake of the 1973 war, could be searching. This changed under Likud’s Menachem Begin, who established the precedent of making national solidarity a rival of press freedom at the I.B.A. He appointed as its director-general the late Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, Yair’s father, who fired a “leftist” news producer and banned interviews with P.L.O. members. Netanyahu’s influence is now felt in a similar way. During the run-up to the election, Channel One aired rightist satire that was so strident and mocking that it seemed to have been produced along with Likud campaign videos. Nobody who works for the I.B.A., the former Haaretz columnist Lily Galili told me, knows which jobs are safe.

“Over twenty-five years ago,” Galili added, “I met Bibi on a tour of an immigrant-absorption center. It was boring for us both, so we had a long conversation.” Netanyahu told her that “the right goes wrong when it assumes the leftist media mattered.” Rather, he said, the “cultural climate was produced by theatres, film, writers.” He insisted that this is where the political right should make its impact. “He sounded then like a very different person.”

Posted by on Jun 5 2015 . Filed under Commentary & Analysis, News from the Middle East . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 . Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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