Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he will hold snap elections if no deal is reached to shut down Israel's new public broadcaster before its official launch.
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The prime minister told his ministers on Saturday that if Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon refuses to shut down the new broadcasting corporation and reform the old one by the middle of the week, he will send Israel to the polls.
Netanyahu and Kahlon reached an agreement on Thursday that the new public broadcasting corporation will start operating as scheduled on April 30. But on Saturday Netanyahu said that he "changed his mind" about the deal.
The new Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation is meant to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority, whose 1,000 employees are slated to be fired and have been mounting protests.
The growing crisis between Netanyahu and Kahlon deepened Wednesday when the premier publically urged the finance minister to delay the new broadcaster's launch by six months, a demand Kahlon rejected.
Netanyahu’s repeated attempts to repeal the decision to set up the new corporation, along with the recent circulation of a draft law that would grant the government control over all television and radio stations in the country, prompted Kahlon to tell Netanyahu that “public broadcasting doesn’t interest you; you're only interested in having control,” sources told Haaretz.
The next day, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri convened the two sides and mediated a compromise: The new corporation will begin broadcasting on April 30 as planned, and Kahlon would support Netanyahu's media bill.
But in a Facebook post on Saturday, Netanyahu wrote that he "changed his mind" about his deal with Kahlon after meeting with the old broadcasting authority's employees and hearing their "heartbreaking stories." He also said that contrary to data provided by the Finance Ministry, estimates for keeping the old broadcaster on air were much cheaper than setting up a new one. "So, what do we need the [new broadcasting] corporation for?" he asked rhetorically.
Netanyahu eyes early vote
On Saturday afternoon Netanyahu held a series of consultations with Likud ministers Miri Regev, Yariv Levin and Tzachi Hanegbi at his official residence in Jerusalem. He told them he wouldn't hesitate to call elections if Kahlon refuses to shut down the new broadcaster. According to sources familiar with the talks, Netanyahu conducted polls this week, which showed him that he is more popular than ever among his voters, while Kahlon is growing so unpopular that his party may not pass the electoral threshold necessary to make it into the Knesset.
Netanyahu also told the ministers that once Kahlon is fired from the Finance Ministry, the prime minister would force the treasury to pay the salaries of the old broadcasting authority's employees until after the election. Once he wins the elections, Netanyahu said, he will bring forth legislation that would shut down the new media agency.
As of now, Kahlon and his aides are keeping mum and it's not clear what they intend to do.
Sources close to Netanyahu said on Saturday that the prime minister wants to call an election. He is afraid that Kahlon is growing more powerful as finance minister and may even make serious economic strides over the coming year. That and fears police would recommend he be indicted in a graft case have convinced Netanyahu that elections would work to his benefit.
Netanyahu has long been criticized for trying to block the launch of the new corporation, which ostensibly would be freer from political meddling than the old broadcasting authority.
Kahlon said last week that he would support the establishment of one regulatory agency to oversee all broadcasting, but that freedom of expression and the new broadcasting corporation’s independence would be maintained. Interior Minister Arye Dery mediated between the two sides after warning that the crisis could lead to an early election.
If the Israeli elections were held today, Netanyahu's Likud party would still get the most seats in Israel's parliament, a new poll by Channel 10 News said Friday, giving the ruling party 26 of the Knesset's 120 seats.
Yair Lapid's centrist Yest Atid party would come in second by just one Knesset seat, polling at 25, while the current opposition leader, the Zionist Union, would win only 10 seats.
Likud won 30 seats in the last Knesset elections in 2015, while the Zionist Union has 24, so the poll indicates a loss in support for both, while support for Lapid, who currently has 11 seats, seems to be on the rise.
Both the far-right Habayit Hayehudi party and the Israeli Arab Joint List party polled at 13.
Should Netanyahu dismantle the coalition, the leader of the Zionist Union party, Isaac Herzog, will likely offer Kahlon to avert elections by joining him in a new coalition and forming a new government, led by Herzog.
At the opposition party, lawmakers called on Kahlon to resist Netanyahu's demand and bring about the dismantling of the coalition. Meanwhile, Education Minister Naftali Bennett urged the sides to seek an amicable solution. "I call on everyone to act responsibly and prevent expensive and unnecessary elections that will harm the economy and the citizens of Israel," he tweeted.
Netanyahu also withstood fire from ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition, who took umbrage with the fact that the premier met with ministers on Shabbat. Interior Minister Dery of the haredi Shas party said that he called Netanyahu to express his outrage, and the premier accepted the criticism and said that he did not intend to violate the Shabbat.