Israel’s defense minister wants to close Army Radio

Like other defense ministers before him, Benny Gantz wants to rid the ministry of the IDF radio station.

al-monitor Israeli acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (C) speaks to his media adviser Assi Shariv (L) before he gives an interview to Army Radio personality Razi Barkai at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Jerusalem, March 20, 2006. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

Topics covered

radio, avigdor liberman, aviv kochavi, benjamin netanyahu, benny gantz, media, idf

Jan 25, 2021

Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced Jan. 21 that he plans to remove Army Radio from the auspices of the Ministry of Defense and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In his statement, Gantz indicated that he plans to transfer the radio station to some other, independent body or even to shut it down entirely.

IDF Army Radio is a station devoted to regular newscasts and news shows, interspersed with current events, culture and music. It employs entire teams of journalists, editors and commentators, most of them soldiers on their mandatory service. Only a handful of its staff are civilian journalists.

The station was established by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in 1950. One of its stated purposes at the time was to serve as an efficient means of communication between the regular army and the reserve forces. It was also intended to be an educational tool for young people and the population in general, and a means of helping to absorb new immigrants and instill in them a knowledge of the Hebrew language and the country’s geography. Over the years, Army Radio expanded its activity. In the 1970s, it began broadcasting current event shows. 

There is an inherent conflict of interests between a staff consisting mainly of soldiers in regular service and thereby required to maintain neutrality in all political issues and the responsibility to cover the news, including elections and other political activity. The conflict made headlines on more than one occasion. In the past, several chiefs of staff and defense ministers attempted to shut the station down or transfer it to an independent organization — but to no avail. They could not contend with Army Radio’s popularity or with the fact that so many of its alumni were active in other Israeli media outlets and other key positions in the public sphere.  

This phenomenon has intensified over the last few years. In 2017, then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman ordered that the ministry take another look at the possibility of removing the station from the IDF’s responsibility, this time acting upon the recommendation of then-Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot. In fact, Eizenkot had tried to do this before, two years earlier, when putting together his “Gideon” multiyear plan for the IDF. At the time, he argued that he could not justify spending tens of millions of shekels from the defense budget each year to keep the station operational, when the military was reducing the number of air force squadrons and eliminating entire tank brigades. He also noted that he felt uncomfortable about the station’s extensive coverage of political issues.

Liberman had said at the time that he was disturbed by the idea that a body identified with the IDF was involving itself in politics. In the end, Liberman passed the decision on to the office of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. Like so many other controversial issues, he procrastinated on the issue, only to drop it entirely once Liberman resigned as defense minister.

Now Gantz has decided to look into the issue yet again, this time at the behest of the current chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, and after preliminary discussions in the IDF and the Ministry of Defense. The conclusion of these discussions was to sever ties between the defense establishment, the IDF and the activities of what is, effectively, an independent radio station in all but name. The goal was to separate services provided to the troops and the activities of a media outlet that deals with political issues.

Gantz said, “The decision … was an ethical matter, not a budgetary one. A free press in Israel is important above all else, and I will continue to defend it and ensure its independence, but having a military radio station in the IDF is not reasonable at this time. I have determined that people in uniform should not deal with politics in any position.”

As early as this June, Kochavi asked Gantz to turn the station over to a civilian body or to shut it down entirely. Looming in the background were growing reservations among the IDF leadership that Army Radio was undergoing increasing politicization.

Army Radio’s senior management responded, saying, “Army Radio, which marks its 70th anniversary this year, is a longstanding asset to Israeli culture and society. Army Radio was a home to soldiers, a home to Israeli creativity, culture and art, and a home to countless outstanding journalists. Army Radio is a home to Israeli democracy. It is a rare species of flower, which must be protected.

Politically, Army Radio, like most of the media, has come under attack over the years for its tendency to lean left, as evidenced by its opinionated broadcasters like Razi Barkai, Rino Tzror and others. When journalist Yaron Dekel was appointed in 2012 manager of the very station where he first started his career, he decided to shake things up with a more diverse staff. Under his tenure, the station saw greater representation of other sectors of Israeli society, including the religious and ultra-Orthodox, but also of commentators with more right-wing views.

Among these new commentators appointed during Dekel’s tenure was Yakov Bardugo, who is close to the Likud party. Over the last two years and three election campaigns, he launched frequent attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals, including Gantz himself, even after Gantz was appointed minister of defense. In other words, he was attacking his boss.

Bardugo rejected criticism of this, saying that other voices needed to be heard. At one point, Netanyahu himself came to Bardugo’s defense, tweeting, “There is one broadcaster on Army Radio who refuses to toe the line set by the left and the media’s closed circle. He interferes with the daily propaganda broadcasts of Rino Tzror, Razi Barkai and others on behalf of the left-wing party headed by [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid and Gantz. As a result, they are asserting enormous pressure to have him removed from the station. That won’t happen. There are limits to what the thought police can do and to how much the left can silence people. We are not North Korea. If the right isn’t given a voice as well, Army Radio has no right to exist.”

Barkai now says that Gantz’s decision to move ahead with shutting down Army Radio is an act of retaliation. In an interview with Army Radio’s competitor KAN Reshet Bet, Barkai said, “Part of it is because Benny Gantz feels like Army Radio beat him up. Not just him either, but the Blue and White party in general. There is this feeling that it is time for retaliation. I worry that Gantz feels that the station should have defended him and provided him with cover. He did not get the protection he needed.”

As for Kochavi, Barkai explained, “What happens when the chief of staff leaves the Cabinet meeting? He has Hezbollah on his mind. He has Syria on his mind. All of a sudden, one of the ministers walks over to him and says, ‘Kochavi, what’s the story with Barkai’s comments about me?’ Kochavi has no idea what he is talking about, and he doesn’t really care either. After every Cabinet meeting some politician or other comes over and starts harassing him. He just wants to get that monkey off his back.”

Despite all of the above, the Defense Minister can’t really take this drastic step. Elections are right around the corner, and he is part of a transition government. Army Radio operates on the basis of longstanding legislation passed decades ago. To make such a change, Gantz will first have to pass a law in the Knesset overturning that legislation, and there is no chance of that happening. On the other hand, Kochavi will remain in office for at least another year, so if Gantz fails this time around, the chief of staff will likely try to convince the next Defense Minister to do it instead.

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