Analysis |

By Threatening Elections, Netanyahu Is Taking a Huge Risk - Why Now?

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Eyal Toueg

Any attempt to explain, clarify, place in a logical framework or make order in what is happening in Israeli politics over the past few days is doomed. It’s not political analysis that is needed here, it’s a psychologist. And not a child psychologist working in a quarter-time position in public service, but an entire department in a closed institution. The cuckoo’s nest is here.

Two years and two days ago, Israel held unnecessary elections because the prime minister wanted to prevent damage to the newspaper that is his private mouthpiece, Israel Hayom. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted this after the fact. Now he is threatening elections if the broadcasting corporation, which he hates, does not close down.

That, at least, is the official reason the prime minister is using to justify this possible move. His heart is supposedly breaking for the Israel Broadcasting Authority workers, so, let’s go for it, elections it is. But after all, Netanyahu customarily lies without batting an eye, not for the sake of the state, but for his own needs. If the last time in December 2014 he hid from the public the real reason for the breakup of the coalition, there’s no reason to believe he’s not doing the same thing now.

First of all, let’s make clear that in any case, the corporation will not shut down. With or without elections, it will launch television, radio and digital broadcasting on April 30, and the Israel Broadcasting Authority will cease to exist. Netanyahu is threatening to close the corporation sometime over the next six months, eight months maybe, after a new coalition is established that he hopes to head, after the Israel Broadcasting Authority will have long ceased to exist, its buildings sold, its workers scattered to the wind. This is crazy even in the crazy environment we live in. Who would support this? Who would join such a baseless, imaginary coalition? Not Kulanu chairman Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, not Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid, not former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, not the Zionist Union, not Habayit Hayehudi chairman Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Maybe just the ultra-Orthodox parties.

And so the common assumption is that if Netanyahu really wants early elections and his threat is not baseless, the corporation is just an excuse. According to that assumption, Netanyahu apparently believes that the police are about to recommend that he be indicted, in the coming weeks, at least on charges of alleged wrongful receipt of gifts, known as Case 1000. Elections, according to the custom in Israel, should stop such a move until after the polls close.

As long as such a recommendation does not land on the attorney general’s desk, Netanyahu is free to do what he wants. From the moment the recommendation is made, he becomes politically handicapped. His options shrink, his room to maneuver dwindles. He is politically weakened. And so if that is what he is striving for, there is a certain logic in elections now.

On the other hand, if that is his goal, why on Thursday afternoon did he reach an agreement with Kahlon that the corporation will begin operations as planned on April 30 and new regulatory action would be put off for later? What happened at the end of the week, other than his high-profile meeting with the broadcasting authority employees (whom Likud election ads in the last campaign called “hamasniks”) in which he learned nothing new? Who are the people who whispered in his ear, who tormented him over the agreement with Kahlon? Who are the ones who gave him no respite at his official residence on Balfour Street until that meeting of ministers was called in which he announced that he was backtracking on his agreement with Kahlon?

It is well known that the most important political decisions are made around the dining table in the residential wing of the prime minister’s official residence. His wife Sara and his eldest son Yair are often the ones who make the decisions. The prime minister is the executor or the contractor. Of course, one cannot know if that was the case this time as well.

By the way, Sara Netanyahu did not like the fact that elections were moved up the last time. She objected, but at the time the interests were more complex. Israel Hayom, the apple of the eye of the casino magnate patron, was in danger. Today, as far as we know, Sara Netanyahu supports early elections and closing the broadcasting corporation. We could hear her opinion through the mouth of her close friend, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, at a team-building event of the coalition last week. “Close it! Close it!” she shouted from her seat in the audience.

In practical terms, if we are headed for elections, Netanyahu is taking a huge personal, political and party risk. No one is promising him that in the next election he will have 61 MKs at his disposal. Kahlon, as chairman of Kulanu or in some other framework, is holding steady in all the opinion polls at 6 or 7 seats. There is no reason to believe that he will go below the voter threshold, and there is no reason to believe that after the elections, in light of what he is going through now, his interest will be to once again support Netanyahu.

And that’s not all. If Netanyahu is not re-elected prime minister, the police and the attorney general will find it easier to indict him; it wouldn’t be a move that brings down a prime minister and a government. And of course, Netanyahu won’t be interrogated at his home, at a time convenient for him, but rather will have to present himself at the headquarters of the Lahav 433 anti-fraud unit.

Moreover, he is willing to sacrifice his party for his own private obsession, whether it involves the broadcasting corporation or his alleged criminal affairs: He is gambling with Likud’s status as the ruling party, when Likud has two years and eight months left in that position. In any sane party, ministers and MKs with integrity and backbone would send their leader packing. Not in Likud apparently, where there’s no lack of spinelessness.

Netanyahu's reason for the timing of this political bombshell – a few hours before he flew on Saturday to China for a five-day visit – is not obvious. He created a mega-crisis with huge implications for the Knesset but he won’t be here to manage it. Matters can get out of control. Most of the Knesset, except for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, does not want elections. Likud has 30 MKs; five of them won’t be re-elected. Why should they extend their neck to the slaughtering knife just because of the mistakes of the party chairman?

The only explanation for the timing involves the person who took off to the east a few hours before Netanyahu. President Reuven Rivlin flew to Vietnam for a few days. The president has a very important function in the scenario by which the prime minister seeks to disperse the Knesset. He needs to begin consultations with the lawmakers to find an alternative candidate to establish a coalition in the current Knesset. As long as both president and the prime minister are abroad at the same time, the president can’t hold consultations and unofficial talks with party heads.

Netanyahu and Rivlin will return to Israel the day after the Knesset begins its six-week spring break. Meanwhile, there is no bill, not even a preliminary stage of a bill, which will allow the corporation to be closed and the Israel Broadcasting Authority to be revived. During the break it is much more difficult to legislate, not to mention disperse the Knesset. The possibility was raised in the coalition Saturday night of extending the Knesset session by a week. That’s possible, but not easy. Such a decision is in the hands of Knesset Speaker MK Yuli Edelstein (Likud).

Another possibility – theoretical at the moment and very unlikely – is that a temporary alternative government will be established, a kind of transitional government that will govern in the current Knesset for one year. Kahlon would be happy to head it. Zionist Union chairman MK Isaac Herzog, who has proposed this in the past, would be even happier to serve as foreign minister in a Kahlon government. The ultra-Orthodox parties would certainly not oppose it, nor would Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to remain in office for at least two years. To reach the required majority for this move, another party would be needed: Likud, Habayit Hayehudi or Meretz, which makes this puzzle almost impossible to put together. But make no mistake, once Netanyahu announces he wants elections, huge efforts will be made to prevent the dispersal of the Knesset by establishing an alternative government.