Israeli ultra-Orthodox Party Leader: We Don't Want Elections, but We're Not Afraid

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United Torah Judaism head Moshe Gafni, who also serves as chairman of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, in the Knesset plenum, Dec. 21, 2016.
UTJ leader Moshe Gafni, who chairs the Knesset Finance Committee, in the plenum last December.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Israel's United Torah Judaism party does not believe that an early election is necessary, but it will not object should one be called, party leader Moshe Gafni declared Monday.

“We do not believe that going to an election is the right thing, but we are not afraid. If necessary, we will go to vote,” said Gafni at an unusual session of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, which he chairs.

On Sunday evening at a meeting of the heads of the coalition parties, UTJ leaders Gafni and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, along with Shas party chairman and Interior Minister Arye Dery, told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they oppose any initiative to bring the election forward due to the coalition crisis raging over public broadcasting in Israel.

Litzman went on to suggest that all participants leave the room except Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose disagreement over a new, independent broadcasting entity, called Kan, has resulted in a serious impasse.

Netanyahu and Kahlon actually met twice on Sunday, marking the first time the two had done so since the premier backed down on the agreement they had struck about Kan beginning operations at the end of April. However, they failed to reach common ground and the political crisis continues, with the premier insisting — after several flipflops — on abolishing the new broadcaster, which is due to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

A senior source in Netanyahu’s Likud party said afterward that the option of an early election still stands. “The prime minister doesn’t want an election, and is looking at different options for resolving the problem with Kahlon,” the source told Haaretz. “But they haven’t found a consensus on a solution that would also pass the legal test. If no solution is found, Netanyahu could opt for elections.”

Another source told Haaretz that as far as Netanyahu believes that he is going to win no matter what happens: “If he gets Kahlon to bend, the broadcast company will be weakened, or the IBA will be rehabilitated in some fashion. If he can’t get the finance minister to cave in, Netanyahu will force an election before the attorney general indicts him” — a reference to the fact that the prime minister is being investigated by the Israel Police on unrelated matters, involving allegations of receiving improper gifts, and seeking to control certain media outlets.

An election, the source added, would help the prime minister draw public attention away from the suspicions levelled against him, not to mention from the mounting dispute with the Trump administration in the U.S. about Israel’s building in the territories.

Representatives of Likud, led by Netanyahu, and Kulanu, the party headed by Kahlon, declined to comment on the content of the meetings held on Sunday; indeed, they did not initially acknowledge that the second meeting had even been held. One source explained that this shows they are serious about seeking solutions, not just chasing headlines.

Late last week, despairing of reaching an accommodation with Kahlon, Netanyahu ordered Shlomo Filber, director general of the Communications Ministry, to draft a proposal to abolish Kan and rehabilitate the state-controlled IBA. Netanyahu also told Filber to work on new legislation that would subject all broadcasting bodies in Israel to government supervision.

Kahlon is meanwhile insisting that Kan must start airing content on schedule, but he apparently does not intend to fight Netanyahu on the new bill. However, for his part, the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, does mean to challenge the premier on several clauses in the proposed legislation, particularly that calling for the firing of Kan chairman Gil Omer and CEO Eldad Koblenz.

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