Kafe Knesset for September 7
Mum’s the word: Israeli officials, as always, kept mum this morning as the country woke up to news of an air strike on a military factory in Syria. The silent treatment follows the traditional ambiguity policy that Israel adopts after every strike. However, the Security Cabinet convened last night for more than three hours – with Iran-Syria topping the agenda. All of this, against the backdrop of Bibi’s recent meeting with Putin and ahead of his scheduled meeting with President Trump. While there are some issues brought to the Cabinet that are usually leaked to the press immediately, these meetings – dealing with Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are held under an extra veil of secrecy, and Cabinet ministers are traditionally required to sign a special confidentially form. This morning, everyone involved stayed under the radar, for now.
But former officials did weigh in – Amos Yadlin, former IDF intelligence chief, published a series of tweets these morning, using the Twitter thread style that was common in the former Obama-administration. Maybe former US Ambassador Dan Shapiro taught him how to tweet in this manner, since Shapiro is now at the think tank Yadlin heads, the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
“The strike reported last night is not routine,” Yadlin informed. “It targeted a Syrian military – scientific center for the development and manufacture of, among other things, precision missiles which will have a significant role in the next round of conflict. The factory that was targeted in Masyaf produces the chemical weapons and barrel bombs that have killed thousands of Syrian civilians.” Yadlin of course did not confirm it was an Israel action, but did state that “if the attack was conducted by Israel, it would be a commendable and moral action by Israel against the slaughter in Syria.” The attack, Yadlin continued, sent three important messages – “1. Israel won’t allow for empowerment and production of strategic arms. 2. Israel intends to enforce its redlines despite the fact that the great powers are ignoring them. 3. The presence of Russian air defense does not prevent airstrikes attributed to Israel.” He concluded that “Now it’s important to keep the escalation in check and to prepare for a Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah response and even opposition from Russia.”
Freedom of the Press for whom? Late last night, the night before a special Government Press Office (GPO) seminar on freedom of press was set to convene in Jerusalem, the Prime Minister ordered a change in the agenda. The PM cancelled the participation of Walid Al Omari, the Al-Jazeera Jerusalem Bureau chief, at the event. The seminar, headlined “The limits of freedom of expression – the dilemma between security and freedom of press,” was supposed to deal with Al-Jazeera as a test case. Al Omari was invited to be part of an expert panel, but in recent days, his scheduled appearance caused some right-wing criticism. A well placed source told Kafe Knesset that when Netanyahu found out about Al Omari’s participation,he “fumed” at GPO director Nitzan Chen, and the PM adamantly demanded the cancellation of Al Omari’s appearance.
Al Jazeera has been one of Bibi’s favorite targets this summer. The PM is supported in this battle by his loyal Communications Minister, Ayoob Kara. Kara, a right wing Israeli Druze MK, has been promoting steps to close down the network’s Israel offices and revoke the GPO cards of its journalists. So far, however, not much has been done practically. The GPO conducted a hearing for Elias Karram, one of the Al Jazeera reporters, who had been accused of being an “active partner in Palestinian resistance.” The GPO then announced that it would suspend the decision to revoke Karram’s press card last week, but Bibi ordered the GPO director, to resume steps to revoke the Al Jazeera journalist’s status and to continue efforts to close their offices.
Communications Minister Ayoob Kara told Kafe Knesset: “I will close Al Jazeera, period, no matter what it costs me. They should stop taking advantage of the freedom of expression in Israel. If they want to open their mouths, they can do it at the dentist. They crossed the line of free speech and are part of terrorism. All the countries in the region say so, and because of our delusions of free speech over security, we are playing into their hands…Security is more important. Without security, we won’t have a state left.”
Channel 20, out? While the PM is cracking the whip on Al Jazeera, Bibi’s beloved Channel 20 may soon be shut down. The channel, to some extent, aspires to be Israel’s version of Fox News, with media personality and critic of the left-wing, Shimon Riklin, serving as the fawning Sean Hannity to Netanyahu’s Trump. The channel was never actually meant to be a news channel. It was granted a government issued broadcast license as a “Heritage” (read: Jewish) channel. Since it is in such blatant violation of its license – it does, indeed have programming about the weekly Torah portion and similar content, but its prime time programming is entirely current events from a right-wing angle. Cable and Satellite Authority chairwoman Yifat Ben Chai-Sagiv recommended to foreclose on the channel’s NIS 4 million deposit. According to the law, this step, which has never been taken by the regulator in the past, is the legal precursor to shuttering the channel. This problem would have never come up if Netanyahu had followed through on his policy proposal from when he was still Communications Minister, to open up the Israeli media to the free market instead of the government regulating what channels can be opened. He never passed a law, and while Kara announced his intention to follow Netanyahu’s plans, there has not been time to achieve this legislative goal.
Meanwhile, Israeli politicians have come out in support of Channel 20. President Reuven Rivlin said that “the intention to darken Channel 20…is a shadow on Israeli democracy. Regulatory considerations are important and must be followed, but the varied, democratic discourse is even more important, as is exposure to a spectrum of opinions and views.” “There is no logic and certainly no justice in sanctions against Channel 20, which airs varied and appropriate current events broadcasts, when the government is promoting competition in the broadcast market,” Likud minister Gilad Erdan tweeted. Erdan pointed out that Channels 2 and 10 violated their licenses many times and were not shut down. Bayit Yehudi chairman, Naftali Bennett, called the channel “an important voice in the Israeli media, and shutting it down will violate freedom of expression.” Zionist Union MK and former journalist, Miki Rosenthal, chimed in from the Left, tweeting: “I am unambiguously in favor of Channel 20’s existence. It is important that its voice be heard (less hatred wouldn’t hurt), but don’t tell – It’s not pleasant to be on the same side as Riklin.”
Communications Minister Ayoob Kara told Kafe Knesset: “Channel 20 will not be shut down. Everyone has freedom of expression – not just the Left. [The regulator] can’t just let the Left stay open and not the Right. There are problems with the conditions of the license, and they will be dealt with according to law.”
Sa’ar’s show of force: Former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar continued his political comeback with an event last night. The event was, in some ways, a major show of force. In other ways, the event shows that Sa’ar has an uphill battle to conquer the party. Sa’ar took a break from politics three year ago, ostensibly to spend more time with his family. But the hiatus started just as a rift between Sa’ar and Netanyahu opened up and grew. Now, Sa’ar is back, but everyone knows Netanyahu that hates him. The only MKs that showed up at his event were backbenchers Amir Ohana and Sharren Haskel. The venue for the event was a fancy wedding hall in Or Yehuda – classic Israeli wedding party favor photo magnets included. Despite the poor showing of MKs, mayors from all over the country, who tend to be good representatives of the party grassroots, were in attendance. Sa’ar played nice with Netanyahu and said that he has the right to a fair trial, rather than one in the media or the town square. He also moralized to the party about not being too extreme and respecting the state’s institutions. But mainly, he ran through the typical right-wing talking points – settlements forever, historic right to the Land of Israel – and touted his own experience as Education Minister and Interior Minister to say that he has the solutions for Israel’s ills.