Netanyahu Fabricating Political Crisis to Distract From Probes and Claims Against Wife, Likud Officials Say

Ministers say Likud demand to vote on bill prohibiting investigation of sitting prime minister is 'hot air, mainly to keep the media busy'

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, October 29, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, October 29, 2017.Credit: POOL/REUTERS

Senior Likud figures criticized the conduct of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his inner circle on Sunday night, saying that an artificial coalition crisis had been sparked to stop the media from dealing with the investigations against Netanyahu and his wife Sara.

The crisis developed over Likud’s demand to vote Sunday morning on a bill that would prohibit the investigation of a sitting prime minister, which led to a postponement of discussion of all other bills on the agenda of weekly meeting of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. 

Likud ministers said that the insistence on bringing the bill to a vote was part of a campaign to protect Netanyahu, waged by coalition whip MK David Bitan and MK David Amsalem, who is leading legislation on the bill. Senior Likud figures called the bill “hot air, intended mainly to keep the media busy.”

“Netanyahu doesn’t want the main news broadcasts to open with stories about his wife and son or the investigation against him and is flooding the media with stories,” one minister said, saying insisting on voting on the bill was merely “to divert attention.”  

Another senior Likud figure said that the party’s ministers were being careful to keep out of the flap over the bill, and so Netanyahu has been left to wage the battle with two “soldiers” of lower rank, Bitan and Amsalem. “They go to the media and think that they’re winning points with Netanyahu and public opinion.” The senior figure said that this is a recurring pattern with the prime minister. “Bitan doesn’t know Bibi [Netanyahu] well enough yet, but we’ve known this behavior for years. At the moment he’s using him and Amsalem, but he won’t have a problem throwing them away when it’s convenient for him. This move is burning them in the mind of the public but he doesn’t take that into consideration. After Bitan and Amsalem lay down on the fence for him, he distanced himself from them publicly when he said that he doesn’t even want the law to pass, just like he distanced himself not long ago of closing down the broadcasting corporation.”

Earlier Sunday, Likud and Habayit Hayehudi waged a war of words that led to the postponement of all votes on bills on the agenda of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. The clash was sparked over Bitan’s insistence not to bring any bill for a vote as long as there was no agreement in the coalition over the bill preventing the interrogation of a prime minister in office. 

Before the votes were postponed, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked had intended to present bills for a vote, and according to committee members, Likud members could have vetoed them if they wanted. However, the votes were postponed after Likud figures expressed concern that this was an attempt by Habayit Hayehudi to back the Likud ministers into a corner and gain political benefit at their expense.

Netanyahu has instructed Bitan to complete legislation “at any cost” on the bill to prevent investigation of the prime minister.

The prime minister has so far been acting like he isn’t working on the bill because it doesn’t have anything to do with him. But today at a meeting of the leaders of the parties Netanyahu, along with MK Yariv Levin and Bitan, angrily asked Education Minister Naftali Bennett why he was obstructing the bill. “We get your bills passed but you always hold back the bills that are important to us,” they said.

Bennett replied that according to the coalition agreement, his consent was required for the legislation of Basic Laws, and he had to give the matter some thought. “So I’ll present it as a regular law,” Bitan answered, to which Bennett responded: “So bring it.”

Even Netanyahu’s inner circle and senior Likud ministers don’t know what his plans are. It is unclear what he will do if he is unable to get Bennett and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to support him.

As of now, the bill is to come up for a vote in the Knesset next Wednesday, after it is discussed Sunday in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. Habayit Hayehudi will reportedly support the law if it passes the ministerial committee, claiming that it is obligated to do so by the coalition agreement. The position of Kahlon’s party, Kulanu, is unclear; its representatives will reportedly make a decision after a concrete bill is presented.