Netanyahu, Cabinet Rival Far From Deal to Save Israeli Government

'We won’t go to elections over the broadcasting authority, but over the principle of implementing coalition agreements,' Likud minister says.

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon as of Monday night were far from a compromise on the opening of the new broadcasting corporation, intensifying the political crisis that could bring down the government, close associates of both men said.

Over the weekend, Netanyahu called for elections if plans to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority with a new public broadcaster are not scrapped. Netanyahu gave Kahlon an ultimatum in which he said that should Kahlon fail to agree this week to the closure of the new broadcaster, Kan – currently due to go on air at the end of April – he would disperse the Knesset and bring elections forward.

Since Saturday night, when Netanyahu announced he had changed his mind and would oppose the corporation’s establishment, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, both of them close to the prime minister, have been trying to reach understandings with Kahlon over the corporation. Hanegbi and Levin are demanding that Kahlon agree to the law on oversight of communications with no essential changes. That law includes the dismissal of the current heads of the corporation, Gil Omer and Eldad Koblenz.

Finance Minister director general Shai Babad, who is representing Kahlon in talks over the future of the corporation, met on Monday with Levin and Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber. But as of Monday night, the three had reached no agreement.

Meanwhile, sources close to the prime minister said Netanyahu was serious about bringing forward elections if his demands are not met. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev said Monday in an interview on the Knesset television channel: “The corporation will not be established, and if it is, it will be blended with the broadcasting authority. We will not go to elections over the corporation, but rather over the principle of implementing coalition agreements.”

Netanyahu is now in China with cabinet secretary Zahi Braverman and Prime Minister’s Office director general Eli Groner. Netanyahu’s bureau chief Yoav Horowitz is in the United States to discuss construction in the settlements with the Trump administration.

Cabinet ministers said Monday that they believed a decision would only be made on Thursday when Netanyahu returns to Israel. One minister said that reaching understandings seemed possible, but that the appointment of Geula Even-Sa’ar as key anchorwoman in the corporation had entrenched Netanyahu further in his position against opening the corporation.

Even-Sa’ar is married to Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud minister critical of the prime minister and considered a potential challenger for the premiership

President Rivlin: Crisis is 'completely artificial'

President Reuven Rivlin on Monday joined a number of lawmakers and ministers in publicly opposing early elections. Rivlin said that although the matter of public broadcasting was important, Netanyahu’s intention to bring down the government if no agreement was reached over the corporation was “bizarre” at a time when “the State of Israel is facing far-reaching decisions on security, diplomatic and economic matters.” Rivlin, who is currently on an official visit to Vietnam, said the crisis was “completely artificial.”

Speaking at the start of a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday, committee chairman MK Avi Dichter (Likud) also came out against moving up elections. Dichter said that at a time when the new U.S. administration was deciding “what it looks like and what it does, including foreign policy,” he was very disturbed that “our political energies could prevent us from seeing and taking advantage of this year of opportunity.”

If Netanyahu decides to move up the elections, he can fire the ministers of Kahlon’s party, Kulanu, and create a minority government. This would expose him to the risk that an alternative coalition could be founded by Zionist Union chairman MK Isaac Herzog. Herzog has been working hard lately on just such a scenario, meanwhile without success.

At a Monday meeting of Zionist Union MKs, challengers for the party chairmanship Erel Margalit and Omer Bar-Lev said the party should hold a primary for election of its chairman, and national elections should be held soon.

“There are more than [a Knesset majority of] 61 MKs who are fed up with Netanyahu,” Herzog said at Monday’s meeting. He said these MKs “would be happy to build a coalition with another prime minister in this Knesset.” Herzog called on Kahlon to refuse Netanyahu’s demand, resign from the coalition and become part of an alternative coalition.

In contrast, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) said at a meeting of his party’s Knesset faction that an alternative to the Netanyahu government could not be established, and that Israel did not need elections now. “Nobody wants elections. We have to conduct ourselves with good sense.” Lieberman said he believed “we’ll find a creative solution that everyone can live with.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) told his party’s MKs Monday that he was not against moving up the elections, but that “elections are simply not good for the citizens of Israel.” Bennett said: “I’ve been told recently that we’re the party for which it’s most worthwhile to go to elections, but we all agreed to do everything possible to compromise over this unnecessary crisis.”