JERUSALEM — A political cartoon of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stretched out on a psychologist’s couch and clutching TV sets, radios and newspapers to his chest might be the best depiction of a crisis that threatened to bring down the Israeli government.
The cartoon was published in the Israeli daily Haaretz just over a week ago as the prime minister tried to stop the launch of a new public broadcasting corporation that he once endorsed and even set in motion.
On one level, the cartoon represented what many Israelis see as Netanyahu’s fantastical obsession with the media. In a deeper sense, however, it denotes what critics say appears to be his determination to weaken and ultimately control Israel’s small, Hebrew-language news industry.
Whether railing about “fake news” or against a particular journalist on social media, Netanyahu makes no secret of the fact that he believes most news outlets in Israel are out to get him.
“Where they see unemployment, I see full employment. Where they see a ruined economy, I see a thriving economy. Where they see traffic jams, I see interchanges, trains, bridges,” he reportedly said last week.
The comments, of course, drew more political cartoons — one showing him flying in a helicopter high above a horrendous traffic jam.
But in the battle against the new public broadcasting corporation — known in Hebrew as Kann — Netanyahu appears to have won.
He initially supported the creation of the new entity, which was meant to replace the antiquated Israel Broadcasting Authority. Founded by the state and funded by a public television tax, the decades-old television and radio body has, in recent years, been deemed over-budgeted, mismanaged and even corrupt.
Legislation was passed three years ago laying out guidelines for the new corporation to free it of political influence and make it more transparent. Studios were set up and staff was hired and, after several delays, the new radio and television channels were to begin broadcasts April 30.
But somewhere along the way, Netanyahu and his supporters started to have second thoughts. Last summer, while the prime minister also held the position of communications minister, he announced his preference for reforming the old broadcasting authority. His coalition partners were not happy. Fierce opposition came from the finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, who made a monetary argument for sticking with the original plan.
Kahlon was forced to backtrack when Netanyahu threatened, once again, to force the country into elections — only two years after the previous ones — over a media issue. The prime minister pointed out that all those who joined his coalition had agreed to refrain from interfering with any communications issue.
A compromise was reached just over a week ago: The new channel would begin broadcasting as planned, but the news department would be removed. The existing news division of the Israel Broadcasting Authority would step in until a new news department could be created.
“The plan is now to create two separate entities under two separate independent managements,” a senior official from the prime minister’s office said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “These will not be controlled by the prime minister or the government in the least.”
The official said Netanyahu believed that Kann’s management had failed to rehire some of the most experienced journalists from the Israel Broadcasting Authority — as it had been mandated to do — or had relegated them to demeaning roles.
“This helps restore the balance,” the official said.
Supporters of the new corporation have denied the allegation and point out that most of the employees at Kann currently or previously worked at the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
“Netanyahu is doing everything in his power to liquidate the corporation because he understands that he cannot control it,” said Yair Tarchitsky, chairman of Israel’s journalists’ union.
The change in direction also angered the news division journalists hired by Kann, who are expected to lose their jobs, and employees of the old broadcasting authority, whose future is equally unclear.
Kann’s management said it could not comment at this stage, mainly because they have not yet received official notification of the changes.
In addition, legal petitions against Netanyahu — who was recently forced by the attorney general to relinquish control of the communications ministry — and against Kahlon’s new plan were filed with the Supreme Court. And Israel’s main trade union has threatened a fully blown strike that could cripple the country unless a solution is found for those about to be made unemployed.
“He has caused chaos and has weakened everyone,” said Danny Gutwein, a professor of social and economic history in Israel at the University of Haifa.
Gutwein said that, by creating legislation to shutter the old broadcasting authority, Netanyahu set a precedent that paved the way for him to easily close Kann down, too.
“I don’t think Netanyahu is obsessed with the media,” Gutwein said. “He is completely rational, he understands the power of the media, and what he did with all this shutting and opening is to create a mechanism that he can now control. It is a calculated system.”
Writing in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharanoth, which Netanyahu considers among his main media foes, political commentator Sima Kadmon noted that no other Israeli prime minister had “succeeded so well in causing a rift and schism among his people.”
She said Netanyahu had managed to divide and conquer Israel’s media outlets on this issue. “And you, Prime Minister, enjoy it.”
“This is a blow to the most important part of democracy — the news,” said opposition leader Isaac Herzog.