(Reuters) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed down in a fight over Israel’s most prestigious arts and sciences award on Friday, saying he would not meddle in the prize days after removing several of its judges for not reflecting “Israeli society.”
Netanyahu’s office said he would respect the advice of the attorney-general, who warned against involvement in the appointment of prize judges at a time of heightened political tension before next month’s election.
Established in 1953, the Israel Prize has been awarded every year to leading figures from the worlds of literature, art, music and science, with $20,000 going to winners.
Netanyahu was vilified by leading Israeli writers and academics this week after disqualifying three of this year’s judges, saying they did not sufficiently “reflect the various streams, positions and strata of Israeli society.”
He justified his intervention because he is the acting education minister. That ministry has overseen the prize since its inception.
The judges, two on the literature panel and one on the film panel, are on the far-left of the political spectrum and sharply at odds with Netanyahu’s right-wing administration.
On his Facebook page, Netanyahu said the panels had over the years come to consist of “more and more radical figures, including anti-Zionists” and described them as “extremists.”
The furore, coming a month before March 17 elections when Netanyahu will seek a fourth term as prime minister, has taken on a deeply political element, sharpening a sense among critics that Netanyahu will do anything to silence opposition.
Writer Amos Oz, a winner of the prize in 1998, sarcastically suggested that since 70 percent of Israelis do not read literature, perhaps the panel should reflect that.
“Netanyahu doesn’t want to replace the committee, he wants to replace the writers, the judges,” Oz told Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s leading newspaper. “The truth is, he would even want to replace the media.”
Even some right-wing members on the judging panels were alarmed by Netanyahu’s action.
Such was the outrage at the meddling that David Grossman, a leading Israeli novelist who was expected to win the literature prize this year, withdrew his name from consideration.
It was not clear if he would put himself back in contention after Netanyahu’s change of tack on Friday.
While the prize looks set to proceed without further intervention this year, the statement from Netanyahu’s office said he would look into changing how the panels are appointed from next year, as long as he reelected as prime minister.