Analysis

Mutiny Brews After Netanyahu Drops Political Bombshell, Heads to China

At least half of Likud lawmakers believe dragging Israel to early elections is senseless ■ Crisis will make or break Finance Minister Kahlon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara arrive in Beijing, China, March 19, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara arrive in Beijing, China, March 19, 2017. Haim Zach, GPO

Crises that aren’t dealt with quickly and decisively tend to spread in many different directions and develop all kinds of mutations. Sometimes, dealing with the side-effects caused by delays becomes no less complicated than dealing with the original problem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threw a bombshell on Shabbat and then flew to China Saturday night, leaving the pressure cooker on the fire. on Sunday, I warned that his abandonment of the field was liable to cause matters to spin out of control.

And what happened? Over the past 24 hours, a kind of mini-rebellion has erupted in his Likud party.

>> Explained: Why does it seem like Israel is always about to have an election? <<

Fifteen ministers and Knesset members vehemently objected to calling early elections. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz was the first to burst the dam; after him came Yuval Steinitz, the minister closest to Netanyahu, together with ministers Zeev Elkin and Gila Gamliel and Deputy Minister Tzipi Hotovely.

At the last count, only five Likud MKs backed Netanyahu. Others are avoiding the microphones, but it’s reasonable to think that if they supported him, they would say so out loud.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the Habayit Hayehudi party, also spoke out against early elections, as did Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who chairs Yisrael Beiteinu. The leaders of two other parties in the governing coalition, Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), share their view. Bennett, Lieberman and Dery are now trying to mediate between Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the Kulanu party.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Moshe Kahlon. 2015.
Emil Salman

Bennett, who held a long talk with Kahlon on Sunday, predicted that in the end, the following compromise would be reached: The new public broadcasting corporation would launch as planned on April 30, but legislation would be passed subjecting it to significantly more stringent regulation.

Every member of this internal opposition to Netanyahu sent the same message, each in his own way: Dragging the country into elections two and a half years before the government’s term ends because of an ego battle over a media outlet is ridiculous, it’s insane and it stinks.

Many Likud members attributed Netanyahu’s obsession with the new broadcasting corporation mainly to his wife Sara. On Saturday night, when he boarded the plane to China, he was holding hands with her. Ditto when he left the plane in Beijing. They even walked past the honor guard on the runway hand in hand. How symbolic, strange and troubling.

“The truth is, I can understand Bibi,” one minister said Sunday. Two young journalists from Army Radio, “who are determined to do good journalism,” he said, have been made the new corporation’s CEO and chairman and “given 700 million shekels a year [$190 million] to do as they please with. Why wouldn’t this drive him crazy?

“But it’s a long way from there to calling elections,” he added. “A compromise is necessary and possible.”

Incidentally, has anyone seen or heard from Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, one of Likud’s most senior ministers and an aspirant to succeed Netanyahu? The public broadcasting reform was his baby in his previous role as communications minister, and he used to tweet about it frequently. But he hasn’t yet found 140 characters with which to express his opinion of the issue now.

As for Kahlon, he didn’t sound eager for new elections during a public appearance on Sunday. He promised to look out for public broadcasting workers, the disabled, single parents, young couples. He was clearly ready to compromise. But he cannot agree to postpone the corporation’s launch, not by so much as one day. That would be the end of him.

He also rightly jeered at Netanyahu’s heartrending words of compassion and empathy for the Israel Broadcasting Authority employees who will lose their jobs when the new corporation replaces it. Where was that humanity hiding when Netanyahu spent a year torturing employees of Channel 10 television?

Of course, Netanyahu could fire Kahlon upon his return to Israel, and then events would begin snowballing toward elections. But that would make it crystal clear to everyone that his motive wasn’t substantive, but personal – that the man suspected of corruption was trying to somehow influence the conduct of the investigation against him, perhaps by preempting a police recommendation to indict him that would leave him crippled and vulnerable, a boat without oars on stormy waters.