Benjamin Netanyahu Wants to Overhaul Israels Judicial System—Its Media, Too

From CJR’s The Media Today by Jon Allsop headlined “Benjamin Netanyahu wants to overhaul Israels judicial system. Its media, too.”:

Seven years ago, Amit Schejter, a professor of communication studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, gave a talk accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of an assault on what Schejter called “four pillars” that provide a check on the Israeli government: the court system, academia, cultural institutions, and the media. “This is what is happening now,” Schejter recalls saying. “Netanyahu is trying to create a political system where there is no criticism of government actions.”

This year, Netanyahu’s efforts to overhaul one of these pillars—the judiciary; by weakening its oversight of executive decisions, among other things—have plunged Israel into turmoil. Protesters have gathered in the streets week after week. “The political opportunity has come for him to fulfill a plan that has been in the works for quite a few years,” Schejter said.

More recently, Netanyahu’s government has set out its intentions to overhaul another of Schejter’s pillars: the media industry. In July, Shlomo Karhi, the communications minister, laid out a sprawling and complicated set of proposals to reform Israel’s broadcast sector. Among other measures, if the legislation is passed, the two independent bodies that currently regulate the sector will be merged into a single authority, many of whose members will now be appointed by the government.

The new regulator will begin collecting and overseeing TV ratings, a function currently performed by a private company. The current requirement that broadcast companies establish a firewall between their commercial and editorial arms will be dissolved. And public radio will no longer be allowed to run advertisements.

Karhi has insisted that the proposals will deregulate and democratize Israel’s media landscape, boosting competition and opening it up to new voices and perspectives. But the many critics of the legislation see it very differently. One analyst predicted that the proposals would do nothing to boost competition; others said that they would weaken the public broadcaster while boosting Channel 14, a network known for favorable coverage of Netanyahu.

A pair of rival commercial channels accused Karhi of wanting to make the independent media “weak, docile, and, above all, subordinated to the political interests of the government”; the Jerusalem Journalists Association accused him of trying to “eliminate the press” and “turn Israel into a fake news powerhouse.” “This is a time of emergency,” the head of the ethics tribunal at the Israel Press Council told Haaretz. “The free media is now on a front line that could turn out—more than people think—to be a battle for its survival.” Various observers—including Schejter, who recently coauthored a paper criticizing Karhi’s proposals—have warned that Israel could be the next Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has all but wiped out independent media.

It’s not yet clear whether the proposals will pass in their present form. Israeli politics are chaotic and fast-moving at the moment; Schejter told me that he doesn’t think Netanyahu has the votes for the full package, but that he could yet pass a version of it. The judicial overhaul, which is currently facing a challenge before Israel’s Supreme Court, is still eating up time and attention and remains the focal point of many protesters’ grievances. Still, Schejter and others told me that parts of the protest movement have lately shown greater concern about the planned media overhaul, including after Schejter’s paper started to circulate among them and in the press.

And, whatever their fate, the proposals have already illuminated several important facets of Israel’s political crisis. As various critics have argued, they show that Netanyahu’s ambitions to undermine Israel’s current democratic pillars don’t stop at the judiciary. The proposals have also illuminated Netanyahu’s contentious history with Israel’s press—a relationship that is intimately bound up with his relationship to the legal system. And—as he prepares to meet with President Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York tomorrow—they show how the nexus linking Netanyahu, his legal headaches, and the press isn’t just an Israeli story, but one that implicates the US, too.

The latter is not a new development. As a child and young man, Netanyahu spent many years in the US, where he became something of a public figure; according to Schejter, he was better known there than in Israel when he returned to the latter country to kickstart his political career. Netanyahu was known as the “Israeli JFK,” Itai Zilber, the head of journalism studies at Tel Aviv University, told me. “He brought American methods of using the media for his own political purposes.” On the whole, the media liked this, Zilber added, since Israeli politicians at the time were “kind of gray, a little bit boring. Netanyahu brought something else, something from America. Israel loves America. Israelis love America.”

As Ruth Margalit wrote for CJR in 2019, if the Israeli media was obsessed with Netanyahu, he was obsessed with the Israeli media. Early on, their relationship was almost symbiotic. Over time, however, it frayed. Per Margalit, after an election loss in 1999, Netanyahu told associates, “I need my own media.” Years later, Sheldon Adelson, the US billionaire, launched Israel Hayom, a free tabloid with a pro-Netanyahu bent; the network that would become Channel 14 followed.

But Netanyahu wanted more, and his efforts to get it would land him in legal jeopardy. In 2019, he was indicted in two corruption cases on charges that he pledged regulatory benefits to the owners of media companies in exchange for favorable coverage. (He denies wrongdoing, as well as the allegation that the cases against him are the true motivation driving his judicial overhaul.)

In recent years, Netanyahu has leaned into Trumpian attacks on journalists, blasting them as “fake news” and making foils of individual reporters by putting their faces on campaign billboards. He was replaced as prime minister in 2021 but returned to office following elections late last year, at the head of one of the most right-wing coalition governments in Israel’s history. Since then, Margalit told me in an email, there has been “an escalation in Netanyahu’s antagonistic relationship with Israeli media outlets.”

From the start of his most recent administration, this antagonism has not been limited to cheap rhetoric. In January, a lawmaker in Netanyahu’s party (and former editor in chief of Israel Hayom) introduced a bill aimed at banning the publication of the sort of private recordings that routinely form the basis of journalists’ stories (and had formed the basis of at least two particular stories that were embarrassing to Netanyahu).

The same month, Karhi, the communications minister, suggested that he wanted to kill the public broadcaster outright, though this proposition was reportedly shelved as the political battle over the judicial overhaul grew all-consuming. As that battle raged, Netanyahu accused journalists of willfully distorting it, at one point suggesting that they should focus on pressing stories like the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.

In March, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s hard-line national security minister, ordered a ban on the operations inside Israel of Voice of Palestine, a radio station affiliated with the Palestinian Authority. Over the summer, Israeli forces conducting operations in the West Bank twice shot at journalists documenting their activities, hitting two Palestinian photojournalists with rubber bullets and breaking the equipment of a film crew, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Then came the Karhi proposals, and the intensifying media opposition to them.

Since his comeback as prime minister, Netanyahu has also stonewalled Israel’s media; as of August, according to figures collected by Haaretz, he had done just three interviews domestically, two of them with Channel 14. By contrast, he had, to that point, spoken more than twenty times with outlets outside of Israel—often in the US, including NBC, ABC, CBS, NPR, and Fox. If Netanyahu has been accustomed to bashing the domestic press, when he sat down for his first televised interview since returning to office, with CNN’s Jake Tapper, he was a study in folksy ingratiation.

Before Tapper could get a question in, Netanyahu—who, like Tapper, spent part of his childhood in Philadelphia—congratulated him on the Eagles making the Super Bowl. Asked about the criticism of his judicial overhaul, Netanyahu again invoked Philadelphia—this time situating his proposals in the tradition that crafted the US Constitution. In his other interviews, he has projected a similar high-minded reasonableness.

Theories abound as to why Netanyahu appears so regularly on US television. “The American media lets you speak,” a Netanyahu adviser once said. “You start a sentence and finish it.” Various domestic critics see a related, if less benign, motivation: that Netanyahu thinks US interviewers are more likely to let him expound at length on his favored geopolitical topics, and that they lack the detailed knowledge of Israeli politics to grill him on his domestic controversies.

Zilber told me that Netanyahu knows his remarks to US networks will be quoted by Israeli media, without him having to navigate Israeli interviewers to get there. For Schejter, Netanyahu uses the interviews to impress his right-wing base back home—gesturing to them that Israeli media is biased and parochial, and that he is still “Bibi, the big world man.”

If the interviews send a domestic signal, however, they also send an outward one: Netanyahu is clearly preoccupied with how his politics are playing on the world stage, not least among investors (Israel’s economy has deteriorated amid the recent turmoil) and advisers to Biden, for whom tomorrow’s UN meeting follows months of hand-wringing about the appropriateness of granting Netanyahu an audience given his far-right lurch.

“I was told during recent reporting that Netanyahu begins his day by reading the Financial Times and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal,” Margalit says. “It makes a kind of strange sense that he would turn to US networks to try to salvage his own reputation and calm the markets. Ironically, the more he does that, the more it sends out panic signals, and the less his reassurances are believed.”

If he goes ahead with his proposed overhaul of the media landscape, Netanyahu would prompt both further domestic outrage and international condemnation. Members of the protest movement are already hoping for the latter: according to Schejter and other observers with whom I spoke, representatives from within the movement planned to trail Netanyahu to the US this week and to highlight his planned media overhaul for American observers. (My follow-up questions to one of the representatives went unanswered.)

While the judiciary has dominated international news coverage of Israel’s crisis, its intricacies can be hard for outside observers to grasp. By contrast, Schejter says, “the protest movement believes that the attack on the media is easier to explain abroad when you want to explain the threat to Israeli democracy.”

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