A shake-up of the overarching Israel Broadcasting Authority — widely considered an outdated and wasteful enterprise — has been decades in the making. At one point it was said to have had up to 18 unions for about 1,800 employees. Israeli officials and experts across the political spectrum said that reform was essential.
But the way it is unfolding appears chaotic and uncertain. And many Israelis were outraged by the abrupt termination of Channel 1’s “Mabat,” the grande dame of Israel’s news programs.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office denied responsibility, describing the swift closing in a statement as “undignified and disrespectful.”
“The prime minister heard about this from the media and the matter was not carried out with his knowledge or approval,” the statement added.
Three years ago, Mr. Netanyahu championed the establishment of a corporation to replace the authority. Plans were made, laws were passed and it was named Kann, Hebrew for “here.” But in recent months, Mr. Netanyahu changed his mind and tried to disband the corporation, saying it was preferable to maintain and reform the authority.
“Netanyahu did not like the independence that the corporation was showing,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, director of the media reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research center in Jerusalem. “They told him from square one that they would do what they wanted, in accordance with the authorities given to them by the law.”
The law, Mr. Netanyahu found, limits government influence. Mr. Netanyahu threatened to break up his government coalition over the new corporation, after his coalition partners refused to go along with its cancellation. In a compromise, it was decided to take the news division out of Kann and to set up a separate news corporation.
Employees and experts worry that the confusion resulting from the two parallel corporations will weaken public broadcasting in Israel. Days before going live, it was unclear how the operation would function. One radio employee, who asked not to be identified because of the political uncertainty around his job, said he did not even know which city he was supposed to be broadcasting from.
The whole nature of the process has stoked apprehension. In a show of support, President Reuven Rivlin of Israel, an old political rival of Mr. Netanyahu, made a point of coming in person to the studio for an interview on Israel Radio’s midday news program. Thanking the workers, he called it the end of an era.
“Without public broadcasting there is no democracy,” Mr. Rivlin said. “Without public broadcasting, the state of Israel isn’t the state of Israel.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents often describe his dealings with the press as “obsessive.” He frequently attacks by name Israeli journalists who are critical of him. And he is under police investigation after tapes surfaced in which he and a long-hostile Israeli newspaper baron tried to negotiate a deal to benefit the newspaper, at the expense of a competitor, in return for better coverage for the prime minister.
This week, Mr. Netanyahu released a scathing video accusing CNN and The New York Times, among others, of “fake news” for their coverage of a new Hamas document (though questions were raised about his representation of what was reported).
Mr. Netanyahu rebuffs accusations that he is trying to limit freedom of expression or control the local news media market. He says he would like to see more pluralism and diversity, and more commercial television and news channels to compete with the existing ones.
For Israelis, the end of “Mabat” prompted an outpouring of nostalgia. Although its ratings had dropped in recent years to around 3 or 4 percent, as the news programs of two competing commercial channels, 2 and 10, became more popular, it remained a much loved national institution. The journalists and staff were dismayed that they were not given a proper opportunity to part from and thank their viewers.
“My heart is broken,” Haim Yavin, the news program’s first anchor, said by phone during the last broadcast. He retired in 2008, after 40 years in television.
“They not only killed us, but they gave us a donkey’s funeral,” said Yaakov Ahimeir, another veteran journalist who appeared in the studio. “What are we? Criminals?”