Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should step down from his dual role as communications minister because it gives him too much power over phone companies and media, opposition members of parliament said.
“It now appears that Netanyahu’s main reason for calling the election was to seize control of Israel’s broadcast media,” Shelly Yachimovich, a Labor Party lawmaker and former talk show host, said Tuesday. The prime minister fired the director general of the communications ministry shortly after his new government was sworn in on Thursday.
Former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, whose Labor-led Zionist Union bloc placed second to Netanyahu’s Likud in Israel’s March 17 election, said the prime minister has a conflict of interest by holding a position where he can support Israel Today, a free newspaper funded by his key backer, U.S. casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. A government spokesman had no immediate comment on the criticism.
Netanyahu’s refusal to appoint a separate communications minister leaves him in control of a fateful decision on the future of Israel’s media. The ministry will oversee the reconstitution of the public broadcasting authority, where journalists have been critical of Netanyahu’s policies.
It will also determine the future of wholesale telephony reforms, posing a challenge to the monopoly Bezeq The Israeli Telecommunication Corp. has enjoyed over the country’s telecommunications infrastructure since the state’s early days. Critics say Bezeq is poised to start its own news organization through its Yes satellite TV and Walla! website units whose editorial stance would be more favorable to Netanyahu.
Livni said in an interview with Army Radio that the new government is trying to block a law that would have required Adelson’s free daily to charge readers in the name of fair competition.
“The moment he controls the media he can impose his world view on all areas,” Livni said of Netanyahu.
Israel Today has become ubiquitous across the country, distributed at busy traffic intersections by employees clad in signature red overalls. Critics charge that Adelson’s deep pockets have hurt competing newspapers, and bought him power and influence with the prime minister. The newspaper maintains its coverage is even-handed and professional.
Labor lawmaker Erel Margalit petitioned Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to block Netanyahu from serving as communications minister, citing conflict of interest and the dismissal of the ministry’s director, the Globes newspaper reported on Tuesday. “Every decision he makes as communications minister will affect both the open and hidden interests of the owner of Israel Today in the Israeli marketplace,” Margalit said in a letter to Weinstein quoted in Globes.
Netanyahu has had prickly relations with the media since his first term in the late 1990s. In recent years, his government has been accused of politicizing appointments to the public broadcasting system and trying to muzzle critics on state radio. Netanyahu and his family in 2012 filed a libel suit against Channel 10 after it broadcast allegations of financial impropriety by the prime minister and his wife, Sara.
In February, Netanyahu accused Yediot Ahronot newspaper publisher Noni Mozes of slandering him and his wife. The prime minister wrote on his Facebook page that Mozes “is not capable of toppling the Likud government under my leadership, closing the ‘Israel Today’ newspaper and regaining Yediot Ahronot’s withering control of the print media.”