Cabinet Ministers and Likud Lawmakers Protest After Netanyahu Threatens Early Elections

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud meeting, December 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud meeting, December 2016. Credit: Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's threat to disperse the Knesset and bring forward elections over a dispute regarding Israel's broadcasting corporation has sparked opposition from within the prime minister's own party, Likud, and from cabinet ministers in his coalition.

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 Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) 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.

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People close to Kahlon told Haaretz on Sunday evening that the finance minister will not back down over the public broadcaster. "He knows that if he gives up to Netanyahu here, it will harm his integrity and won't be able to continue serving as finance minister," a source said. For Kahlon, it's a matter of principle, sources said, insisting that the public broadcaster will be launched on time.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) said in response to the crisis that "any reasonable person understands that the last thing Israel needs now is elections." He added that he hopes a compromise that would enable normal coalition functioning would be reached before Netanyahu returns from his visit to China.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) also spoke out on the issue. "Let’s not drag Israel into a superfluous election," he said.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) also responded on Sunday morning. "Responsibility and good judgement are needed in times of crisis. The [broadcasting] corporation crisis is solvable, it's not a fundamental ideological issue that you break up a rightist government over. Knowing my partners in government, a compromise will be found," she tweeted.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas) estimates that the crisis over the broadcasting authority is solvable and that early elections won't be called. Shas' fellow ultra-Orthodox party in the coalition, United Torah Judaism, is said to be counting on Netanyahu softening his position, perhaps even during his visit to China, where he is accompanied by the party's health minister, Yaakov Litzman.

Sources in United Torah Judaism said that the party won't lead a move to establish a temporary government, but should such a move be put forward, it might join it. The ultra-Orthodox parties have a lot to lose from the breakup of the current coalition, which gave record sums to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, and which may lose some of their power. 

'You don't go to elections over a communications dispute'

Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, told Army Radio that a dispute over the broadcasting corporation should not be grounds for moving Knesset elections forward.

"There are no fundamental differences of opinion within the coalition and you don't go to elections over a communications dispute," he said. "Knesset elections have been set for November 2019 and there is no reason to move them forward."

The prime minster did not hold consultations in a binding Likud party forum on the prospect of holding early elections, Katz said. There had been no consultation with the Likud leadership on early elections, and if there had been, many other members of the leadership would concur with his own opposition to the idea, he added.

Compared to the last election, which was held in 2015 after infighting within the coalition, the situation in the current coalition is entirely different, the transportation minister said.

"The situation now is completely different. The prime minister can lead. The cabinet is homogeneous to the extent that it's possible to carry out homogeneous activity in politics," he said. "The finance minister is not a contrarian finance minister. He does consult with the prime minister and of course there are disputes. But I don't envision a better coalition in the State of Israel that Likud can lead to carry out the ideas that it believes in. I believe and am convinced that you don't lead an entire country into an election campaign over such an issue," he said of the dispute.

The threat of early elections also rattled lawmakers from Netanyahu's party. Likud currently has 30 members in the Knesset. If elections were held now, only 16 of the 30 top spots on the party's Knesset slate would be up for grabs, leaving more than 20 sitting Likud Knesset members on the outside, which may explain their lack of enthusiasm for holding an election now.

Other Likud lawmakers who voiced opposition included Social Affair Minister Haim Katz, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel and Likud lawmakers Oren Hazan, Yehudah Glick and Jackie Levy.

Forming an alternative opposition

Zionist Union chairman and opposition leader Isaac Herzog meanwhile called on Kahlon to resign from the cabinet and to join him in establishing an alternate government in the current Knesset without new elections.

Referring to the minimum number of seats in the 120-seat Knesset for a majority, Herzog said: "I have counted at least 61 Knesset members in this Knesset who would be pleased if Netanyahu were to go home and if there were a different coalition."

"I am calling on Moshe Kahlon to resign from the cabinet and to enter a rapid process of forming an alternative government," he said.

For her part, Netanyahu's Likud colleague Gila Gamliel, the social equality minister, tweeted early on Sunday that the current coalition is "right-wing and strong" and there is no reason to break up the government. "I call on all the coalition heads to work for a solution of the problem and for government stability," she wrote.

On Thursday, it appeared that the crisis between Kahlon and Netanyahu had been diffused. Following the exchange of mutual recriminations between associates of the two, Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas) convened a meeting where a compromise was reached that would have Kan, which was established through legislation that passed the Knesset, go on air as scheduled. Kahlon in turn would support a bill that would give Netanyahu unprecedented control over the communications market in the country.

On Friday, however, Netanyahu held his own meeting at his office with employees of the current broadcast agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, after which he announced that he had changed his mind about the compromise.

On Saturday afternoon, Netanyahu held consultations at the Prime Minister's Residence with three Likud cabinet ministers who are close associates – Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, Tourism Minster Yariv Levin and Communications Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, and told them that he would not hesitate to go to early Knesset elections if Kahlon did not relent from having the broadcasting authority shut down. After the elections, he added, Kahlon, who heads the Kulanu party, would be out of the picture and the legislation closing the new public broadcaster who be passed.

Overnight on Saturday, before leaving on an official trip to China, Netanyahu wrote on Facebook that just as the party in power which he heads respects coalition agreements signed with other parties, so must they respect them.

"A government exists based on coalition agreements," he wrote. "The coalition agreement explicitly states that all of the parties are committed to decisions of Likud, of ours, on communications matters, including the closure of [Kan] . It is unacceptable to have a situation in which we in Likud with 30 Knesset seats respect all of the coalition provisions of the small parties and when we come with our provisions, which are important to Likud and to me, they don’t honor them. That is not acceptable to us."

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