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Explained: What’s the story with Netanyahu and the media?

The editor of Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye, Shuki Tausig, explains the current scandals involving Netanyahu and the media, and what they mean for journalism and democracy in Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 3, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 3, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The Israeli media is often lauded by outsiders as fierce and independent, often in order to demonstrate the ostensible strength of the country’s democracy. But a number of public scandals and political dramas over the past few months have exposed a far less flattering picture.

Most of the story includes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in one way or another. The latest political showdown saw Netanyahu trying to shut down Israel’s new public broadcaster before its legally mandated launch at the end of April 2017, and attempts to exert political influence on other public and private media outlets.

Another scandal includes secret recordings of the prime minister negotiating a quid pro quo that would give him favorable coverage by Israel’s best-selling newspaper in exchange for legislation ensuring it has favorable market conditions. All of it shows how much outside influence there is in the Israeli media.

So what’s the whole story? And what does it mean for journalism and politics in Israel? We asked Shuki Tausig, editor of Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye, to explain.

The following has been edited for length.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been waging a campaign against the new public broadcaster over the past few months. Why did he change his mind about a media outlet his own government — and his own political party — created?

No one but Netanyahu himself knows. The speculation published in the media varies, but most boil down to three theories:

The first revolves around the fact that Netanyahu is currently the subject of a number of criminal investigations, and he will do everything he can to make the public forget about them. Furthermore, Netanyahu simply doesn’t want a new media outlet to publish investigations of his dealings. I’m not sure I buy this theory.

A second explanation is that Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, has a great deal of influence over him and that she is responsible for the decision to suddenly oppose the new Israeli Broadcasting Corporation (IBC). There is a widespread belief that Sara pushes Netanyahu to make irrational decisions, and this is just another one of those decisions.

Another theory is that Netanyahu is utilizing what is known as “chaos theory,” not unlike Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon. Bibi is interested in leaving his political rivals — or those he sees as political rivals — in perpetual limbo. This is why he previously supported the establishment of the IBC, then wanted it shut down, and is now delaying its launch. According to that theory, the compromise he reached last week (explained below) doesn’t really matter since he is only interested in stalling.

But no one knows what is motivating him. What is clear is that Netanyahu is acting cynically and with only one goal in mind: his own political survival. To that end he is willing to destroy Israel’s democratic institutions, whether it is the courts, the regulators, the security establishment, or the newspapers. The story of the IBC is only one small story in Netanyahu’s war against democracy.

Employees of the new Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation protest against the recent government deal for the new agency to operate without a news division, Tel Aviv, April 1, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Employees of the new Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation protest against the recent government deal for the new agency to operate without a news division, Tel Aviv, April 1, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu recently threatened to go to early elections if the government didn’t agree to scrap the whole plan for a new broadcaster. What was the deal that averted that crisis? What does the agreement include, and what are the problems with it?

Netanyahu reached a compromise with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, which would see the IBC’s news department, which was going to be run by people critical of the prime minister, shut down entirely.

Instead, a separate news broadcasting company will be established as part of the IBC, which will include a separate management and board. Under the agreement, only the employees of the old Israel Broadcasting Authority, which was supposed to be dismantled to make way for the new corporation, will be allowed to be part of the new news company. All of this will happen sometime in the distant future, if ever. Those old workers will now be fearful of being too critical of Netanyahu when they take over the news division.

In exchange, Netanyahu promised not to move forward with a proposed law that would make all broadcasters in Israel — both public and commercial — subject to a supervisory council whose members would be selected by government officials.

The previous elections also took place following another of Netanyahu’s clashes with the media. Can you explain what happened there?

Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset and called for new elections in 2014. At the time it was considered radical and speculative to say that he did so because of his desire to control the media. Two years later he openly admitted it. Netanyahu wanted to go to elections because he believed Yair Lapid, who was finance minister at the time, was striking deals behind his back in an attempt to bring him down. Today, Netanyahu has nothing to hide — everything is on the table — and can openly say that the elections were the result of the ‘Israel Hayom Law.’

The law, proposed by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor), sought to curtail the distribution of free newspapers by forcing them to charge a symbolic minimum price. The Israeli Right argued that the purpose of the law was to shut down Israel Hayom. That’s a lie. it would have simply forced them to charge money for each copy. The newspaper’s fierce opposition to the law suggested that it didn’t believe people would be willing to pay even a shekel for their paper.

The law was supported by some members of the coalition, including Yisrael Beitenu and Yesh Atid, a signal to Netanyahu that he didn’t actually control his government. Furthermore, it showed Netanyahu’s patron, Sheldon Adelson, who funds Israel Hayom, that he was useless.

Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the owner the pro-Bibi newspaper, Israel Hayom, is seen embracing Benjamin Netanyahu. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the owner the pro-Bibi newspaper, Israel Hayom, is seen embracing Benjamin Netanyahu. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Israeli police are investigating a number of criminal cases against Netanyahu, one of which also deals with the media. What is the story there, and why did it roil the Israeli public?

Case 2000” revolves around recorded negotiations between Netanyahu and Aronon “Noni” Mozes, the publisher of the most popular newspapers, websites, and magazines in the country — most notably Yedioth Ahronoth and Ynet. Mozes wanted Netanyahu to help him weaken Israel Hayom, his biggest competitor, and in exchange pledged that Yedioth — which has been fiercely critical of the prime minister since Israel Hayom began circulating — would limit its criticism of Netanyahu.

What’s amazing is that Netanyahu is basically admitting that Mozes has the power to decide what goes to print and what doesn’t. By the same token, Mozes views Netanyahu — the most powerful politician in the country — as someone who has the power to decide what Israel Hayom will and won’t print. These recordings expose the lie that there is an independent press in Israel.

To say that it roiled the public is wrong — most of the public doesn’t watch the news, and most people don’t even know this happened.

Netanyahu’s connections to Yedioth, Israel Hayom, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and the new Broadcasting Corporation are not the prime minister’s only connections with media outlets or his attempts to interfere with freedom of the press. Could you give a few more examples?

Netanyahu’s image as the Caesar of the Israeli media is a lie that serves both the prime minister and the media. Yes, he has taken a far more belligerent position against the media and journalists since the last elections, but scapegoating the media is nothing new for him. Today we are seeing a Netanyahu without any constraints or hindrances — which is far more reminiscent of other populist leaders like Donald Trump. Don’t forget how convenient it is for populists to turn the media — rather than their actions or policies — into the main story.

The fact is that Netanyahu and the media work in symbiosis. He briefs some of the country’s most prominent commentators and journalists fairly regularly. The idea that he is trying to sabotage the media is simply wrong. Netanyahu may be trying to weaken the press — rather than take over it — but he is in a constant dialogue with it.

What do you think is motivating Netanyahu in all this?

Political survival, just like his predecessors. Netanyahu isn’t motivated by Likud party principles, nor is he motivated by Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism. But in this sense he is no different from Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon or Ehud Barak — all of whom were also motivated by political survival. This is the reason why we cannot replace him. After all, what’s the real difference between him, Herzog, or Yair Lapid?

Palestinian journalists have for years been subject to administrative detention, the closing of their media outlets, and real bodily harm. Is there a danger that freedom of the press for Israeli journalists could see the same fate?

We must understand that when we talk about rights in Israel, we are talking about two separate worlds. It is obvious that the reality of Arab journalists — and especially that of Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens — is a separate universe.

Palestinian journalists and activists protest in front of the Red Cross offices in the city of Nablus, against Israel's administrative detention of the Palestinian journalist Amin Abu Wardeh, Nablus, West Bank, April 21, 2015. Amin was one of 27 Palestinian civilians who were arrested by Israeli forces at the early morning of April 15, 2015. (Ahmad al-Bazz / Activestills.org)

Palestinian journalists and activists protest in front of the Red Cross offices in the city of Nablus, against Israel’s administrative detention of the Palestinian journalist Amin Abu Wardeh, Nablus, West Bank, April 21, 2015. Amin was one of 27 Palestinian civilians who were arrested by Israeli forces at the early morning of April 15, 2015. (Ahmad al-Bazz / Activestills.org)

There is this idea that when it comes to the Israeli media, Netanyahu is acting like Erdogan. But if you look at the way Israel treats the Palestinian media, we’re already there. It is true that everything is done under the guise of security and the war on terror, and some of that may be justified. I do not know whether the Palestinian journalists in administrative detention are terrorists, as the security establishment claims. But whether or not they are, what is obvious is that the way Palestinian journalists and the way Israeli journalists are treated is worlds apart.

The Israeli media, which rails against the erosion of democracy and freedom of speech in Israel, doesn’t really give a damn about Palestinian journalists. This stems from insensitivity, a lack of collegiality, and a real fear of aiding and abetting someone who may end up being a terror supporter.

The freedom of Israeli journalists is in grave danger, but the source is not Netanyahu. The people who curtail freedom of expression are the publishers and their cowardly workers. The publishers use the media outlets to further their interests. Does anyone believe Mozes accidentally offered Netanyahu that deal? Does anyone really believe he didn’t also speak to Herzog, Bennett, Livni, and Lapid?

What can be done about it all?

The Israeli media is as broken as the Israeli political system, and this is due to the fact that journalists are not doing their jobs. They want to hold elected officials accountable, yet they themselves are beholden to the interests of the people above them. Corrupt journalism can only exist when the journalists themselves are corrupt.

The newspapers focus on a big story for a week, and then they move on to the next thing — all for the ratings and clicks. This, by the way, is not unique to Israel. The same thing is happening in the United States. Who brought Trump to the spotlight? The media — and now they are profiting off him. The media made it possible for a bigoted fascist to come to power. The same thing happens in Israel — and no one is held accountable for it.

It’s nice to make demands of the public, but the public eats what the media feeds it. People aren’t going to just get up one day and decide to act like responsible consumers with a vision for what the media must look like. This is the trap we have fallen into.

The solution will have to come from the sidelines, from places like The Seventh Eye and +972 Magazine. There is a huge gap to fill.

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