Analysis

Israeli Ministers Are Fed Up With Netanyahu, but Don't Eulogize the Government Just Yet

For the prime minister, free media is an existential threat greater than Iran, but it seems there's nothing he can do to thwart the new independent public broadcaster.

Illustration: Netanyahu fights with Kahlon while Lieberman fights with Bennett, aboard a self-driving car heading toward a cliff.
Amos Biderman

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has had enough. Something inside him has snapped. His eternal smile has given way to a grim and angry expression. He’s gritting his shiny teeth. No, he’s not resigning. No, we shouldn’t rush to eulogize this governing coalition. The end of the government is not nigh. Political interests outweigh passions. The collective will of the coalition’s members to continue their journey together to as-yet-unfulfilled goals remains intact.

But privately and not for attribution, almost every cabinet minister has a bellyful when it comes to the prime minister. He gets on their nerves. And currently in the forefront of irritated ministers is Kahlon.

Kahlon and Netanyahu met this week. The former came wound up. Opposite his office in the treasury building, which is spitting distance from the Prime Minister’s Office, Israel Broadcasting Authority employees are demonstrating. They blame him exclusively for their impending dismissal, sometime between Pesach and Independence Day, when their organization will be replaced by Kan, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation.

“For a whole year I’ve been dragged by the hair for something not of my doing,” Kahlon hurled at Netanyahu. “It’s your reform, not mine. Go out there and say you failed, but don’t aim your fire at me. Respect me, treat me with dignity. A human being is sitting across from you. I’m fed up with your maneuvers. Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I left Likud. I’m not your number two or your number three anymore. I don’t work for you – start getting used to the idea.”

Kahlon is definitely upset. He’s become the bad guy, the terminator, while Netanyahu emerges relatively unscathed. Kahlon understands full well what’s going on. You would have to be totally out of it not to detect the grubby fingerprints of the prime minister and his aides. They are fanning the feelings of frustration and pain among IBA employees and inciting them against Kahlon, who is blocking the prime minister’s clumsy attempts to eradicate the new broadcasting corporation and pump oxygen into the lungs of the IBA, as it breathes its last. That, in any case, is the conclusion reached in Kahlon’s bureau following reconnaissance work.

It would be a very expensive and wholly unjustified resurrection. Operating the IBA would cost about 1.1 billion shekels annually, compared with 700 million shekels for Kan. With all due regret for IBA employees, many of whom will find themselves in a tough job market, all the reasons that were cited in recent decades for dismantling and reconstructing the ailing organization remain valid today, even in the face of the employees’ distress.

“You don’t care about public broadcasting,” Kahlon told Netanyahu in their meeting. “The only thing you care about is control.” He couldn’t have put it more sharply and precisely. “You deceived the IBA employees,” Kahlon continued. “You told them publicly, time after time, that the IBA would be rehabilitated. Where was your compassion? Where was your quality of mercy?”

During the tenure of the previous government, Netanyahu ardently supported the reform of the IBA that was initiated and led by then-Communications Minister Gilad Erdan and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Netanyahu took pride in the plan via a toxic campaign ad. In it, a clerk from the IBA’s despised fees collection unit is sitting next to a Hamas terrorist in a support group. Together they rail bitterly against “the Bibi government that operated against them.” That ad was without doubt one of the feathers Netanyahu wore in his cap.

In this government, when he appointed himself communications minister and probed the details of the broadcasting reform plan, he was appalled to discover that under its mandate, the new corporation threatened to be gloriously independent, free of the grip of politicians and managed by superb professionals driven by a sense of journalistic mission.

The skies fell in on him. To his mind, a free media is a threat no less existential – and certainly more concrete – than the Iranian nuclear project. In his dream, the dominant figures in the Israeli media are kowtowing, glazed-eyed people like the political commentator Shimon Riklin, who will wallow gratefully in the dirt at the feet of his wife and him. In that order.

Netanyahu and Kahlon at the Knesset.
Olivier Fitoussi

Then came the period of the pathetic excuses (“It slipped by me during Operation Protective Edge”) and the harassment of the wretched Erdan. It was also the start of the ponderous, hysterical, perspiring efforts to do a U-turn back to the dismantled IBA. “We will rehabilitate the IBA!” Netanyahu declared solemnly in the Knesset less than five months ago, stretching the already frayed nerves of the organization’s employees for the thousandth time. Their hope was that Bibi “I-get-what-I-want” Netanyahu would keep his word and deliver the goods. What they discovered is that for him, his word is just that: a word.

The frenzy that seized him, his bureau and his residence during the 2014 race for president of Israel, which was aimed at preventing Reuven Rivlin from being elected, underwent a reincarnation and transmigration into the saga of the broadcasting corporation. Fortunately, just as he failed to block Rivlin, he was also defeated in his war against Kan.

That failure has Netanyahu’s name attached to it, but officials in the political arena and the relevant ministries are convinced that the path to the searing and humiliating defeat (as he sees it, by the way) was carved out by two of his close associates – Shlomo Filber, the director general of the Communications Ministry, and Yoav Horowitz, his chief of staff. There wasn’t a mistake that those two clowns didn’t make, not a bad piece of advice they didn’t give, not a pothole they didn’t drive into on the way to the corporation’s first broadcast in another six weeks.

Recently, Netanyahu was compelled to appoint his loyalist Tzachi Hanegbi as acting communications minister. In his first interview as minister, Hanegbi stated that the new corporation needs to be shut down and the IBA, “which has undergone rehabilitation,” needs to continue. There was no factual basis for that assertion, only an uncontrollable urge to please his master and maybe get a pat on the back. The emotional roller coaster experienced by the IBA employees since the inauguration of reform plan was like oil on water to him.

Tzachi, the outstanding pupil, continued Netanyahu’s legacy of throwing sand in the public’s eyes, toying cynically with the employees’ feelings and scattering irresponsible remarks. This week, he outdid his mentor when he blamed the opposition – in response to a motion for the agenda by Meretz leader MK Zehava Galon, calling for the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into Netanyahu’s attitude toward the media – for bringing about the IBA’s closure.

“Zehava, give us the six [sic] Knesset votes of Meretz instead of those from Kulanu, and then we will enact legislation to preserve the IBA,” Hanegbi said, without batting an eye. “If you refuse, responsibility for shutting down the IBA will fall on you and your associates.”

Galon, who is rarely without a quick retort, was left speechless. All she could do was burst out laughing.

Credit where it’s (not) due

All these dirty tricks are history. The corporation is a fait accompli. Something new and promising is about to begin. There is no force that can prevent the start of its broadcasts – on television, radio and the internet. If the content is high-quality, professional, diversified and credible, people will vote with their remotes and it will be harder to suppress the newborn by such regulatory means as the new media bill, a draconian draft of which was distributed to cabinet ministers this week.

As their frustration mounted, Netanyahu and his advisers started to do what they do best: shake off the guilt and foist it on others. In this case, on the finance minister, who is doing what he believes must be done – safeguarding the public coffers and preventing a waste of resources.

Actually, there’s one other thing they know how to do best: steal credit and ride the coattails of others’ achievements, all the while turning the spotlight from the dwarfs to the giant, the one-and-only of his generation.

Kahlon has tasted those bitter fruits. No wonder his aides are talking about a feeling of being “fed up,” even of “disgust” at working with Netanyahu. Three weeks ago, this column reported that the Prime Minister’s Bureau forced the treasury to cancel or change dates for the finance minister’s visits to a number of locales where umbrella agreements had been reached regarding the construction of new neighborhoods for young couples.

Netanyahu demanded to be part of the events in Eilat, Beit Shemesh and Or Yehuda. Kahlon, whose big day it should have been, was pushed to the sidelines (in Eilat) and will be again (in Beit Shemesh and Or Yehuda). In Eilat, Kahlon was scheduled to take part in several events and receive an award as a friend of the city. But what we saw on the television news was Bibi and Sara tanning themselves on the dock and scattering million-dollar smiles every which way. Kahlon – who’s he?

Another example, from this week: Kahlon announced several times recently that he was examining the possibility of cutting taxes. The treasury has a few billion shekels more than it planned from tax collections, and the huge deal in which Intel contracted to buy the Israeli company Mobileye for $15.3 billion will inject 3.5 billion shekels more into the public coffers. Kahlon barely had time to digest the good news when the Prime Minister’s Bureau called and urged that a “joint communique” be issued by Netanyahu and Kahlon about an imminent lowering of taxes.

On Wednesday evening – odd timing, a week before the Knesset adjourns for the spring break – the coalition held a morale-boosting event in a Hadera hotel. Before 2013, in the era before the advent of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from Habayit Hayehudi, the Netanyahus hosted the members of the coalition two or three times a year in the official residence. Sara put a stop to that after Bennett and Shaked became members of the coalition, and the events became rare and were outsourced.

At the Hadera event, Netanyahu frenziedly called on “my friend Moshe” to agree to postpone the start of the new corporation’s broadcasts for half a year. It was a hollow, unfeasible proposition – not even wishful thinking. Just meaningless babble. Its aim was to continue to burn into the public consciousness that it’s the recalcitrant, merciless Kahlon who is the obstacle to the “rehabilitation” of the IBA and the salvaging of its employees’ jobs. (But if Netanyahu gets his way, what would become of the new corporation’s employees who came from the outside and not from the IBA?) But how does this serve Netanyahu politically? It only intensifies internal tensions in the coalition. The ministers came to the event seemingly under duress, nodded sadly and said to one another: Nu, it must be a family thing.

By the time the speech was delivered, at times in a roar, Kahlon was already on his way home. Afterward, his bureau responded acerbically in the name of “senior sources” in the ministry and reminded Netanyahu of the “Hamasniks” ad.

What was supposed to be a unifying event looked more like the anti-terrorism course in the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit to which Bennett once compared his relations with Sara Netanyahu. The acute crisis between Netanyahu and Kahlon, which until then was confined to backrooms, was revealed for all to see. It exploded and scattered in every direction like a clump of mud, or something less pleasant, that’s thrown at the fan.

The next day everyone met at the cabinet meeting. Netanyahu probably realized that he shot himself in the foot the previous evening. He was conciliatory. With Arye Dery's mediation, a "compromise" was reached, which for Netanyahu was total capitulation: The new corporation will start broadcasting as planned. The media bill will be brought up for discussion at the Knesset in a few months, and its final draft will be decided on by all parts of the coalition. Kahlon has no intention of nodding in agreement with Netanyahu's every whim like an old bobblehead. He's in an entirely different mood. 

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Olivier Fitoussi

Style and substance

While Netanyahu and Kahlon were sharpening swords to continue fighting a battle that’s already been decided, Bennett and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman found themselves climbing high trees in a crisis with far greater potential to damage the coalition. Lieberman’s decision to stop his ministry’s support for the pre-army preparatory program in the settlement of Eli unless its head, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, resigns, is of strategic significance in a government that rests on the support of a party that represents the settlers and the religious-Zionist movement in general.

Since entering the government, about 10 months ago, Lieberman (the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu) has been constantly sparring with Bennett. The latter finds it difficult to accept the fact that the leader of a party with six Knesset seats is the defense minister, while he, whose party has two more seats, is only education minister.

The constituency of both is from the right wing, but a very different right in each case. Habayit Hayehudi received most of its votes from the settlements; Yisrael Beiteinu gets the bulk of its support from Israel’s Russian-speaking population. In the next general election, Lieberman plans to make inroads into Likud and pragmatic-right bastions. Bennett, for his part, wants to make his party more secular and traditionalist – still religious, but less so.

In the case of the fulminating rabbi, Lieberman made his first significant public move in this direction. (Whether it’s legal remains to be seen.) He’s aiming at the heart of the consensus. Most of the public hates the obscurantist, primitive remarks made by Rabbi Levinstein a few months ago against the LGBT community, and two weeks ago against religious women who serve in the army. Take away his kippa and you’re left with a “dirty old man” – sexism and chauvinism in the guise of buddy-buddy Torah talk.

Levinstein cannot remain in his post as the mentor and Torah teacher of young men about to do military service. It’s a disgrace for the religious-Zionist movement above all. The problem is with the educational institution Lieberman is threatening to cancel. The preparatory institution in Eli is the glory of the religious-Zionist community. It produces soldiers and officers who man key posts in combat units. Many of them have fallen in battle.

A few days before the March 2015 election, Netanyahu – who was fighting a rearguard battle for the votes of the religious-Zionist right – invited himself to the Eli institution and persuaded his listeners that they must make an intelligent, rational choice by voting Likud, so that it would be the largest party. Otherwise, he warned, the left would form the next government, even if Habayit Hayehudi got the 14-15 seats predicted by the polls.

By the way, this was the first time Netanyahu went outside the boundaries of the so-called settlement blocs. From the more remote Eli, the word went out to the other settlements and leaped to the hilltop outposts and the trailers and the other pre-army institutions. The shift of votes from Habayit Hayehudi to its big sister ended, as we know, 30-8.

Bennett is caught in a bind. To defend Levinstein is poison. First of all, it’s not compatible with his big plan to turn his party into a trans-Israeli, trans-right, less bearded and less extreme body. Second, though there’s a fairly large group in the religious-Zionist movement that might object to religious women serving in the army, even they are disgusted by Levinstein’s repellent style.

Backing a revolting figure like this will gain Bennett applause from very narrow and marginal segments of the religious-Zionist movement, but much displeasure and distaste from the public at large and the right-wing electorate in particular. A fine trap.

Nonetheless, Bennett thinks Lieberman has generated an unnecessary quarrel. He looked for a fight, and found it. He also believes the defense minister doesn’t have the legal and formal tools to harm a pre-army institution that’s funded jointly by the defense and education ministries. Bennett’s opinion is that what Levinstein said is obnoxious and he should have apologized for the substance, not only the style. But he will not allow the jewel in the crown to be harmed.

He will try to drag Netanyahu into this radioactive disaster zone and force him to come out in favor of the Eli institution. The boundaries of the confrontation will look like this: Lieberman will focus on the rabbi; Bennett on the institution; and Netanyahu will remain silent until he has no other choice. What you can put off until tomorrow...