Coalition Rift Deepens: 'You're Only Interested in Having Control,' Top Israeli Minister Tells Netanyahu

Finance minister angered by Netanyahu's bid to grant government control over television and radio: 'You're only interested in having control,' source says

A growing rift between Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Kahlon deepened on Wednesday night when the prime minister publicly urged his finance minister to agree to a six-month delay of the launch of the new public broadcast corporation. Kahlon’s associates said he would not agree to a delay of even one more day, and that the corporation would begin broadcasting as planned on April 30.

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The new corporation is meant to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority, whose 1,000 employees are slated to be fired and have been mounting escalating protests. Netanyahu said that delaying the launch of the new corporation would buy more time to attempt to keep the IBA up and running.

A senior coalition source said Netanyahu’s public plea to Kulanu party leader Kahlon last night — during a social event for coalition members — was nothing more than “another attempt to make him the scapegoat in the eyes of everyone who identifies with the distress of the IBA employees facing dismissal.”

“Bibi, being Bibi, won’t give up until the last minute on any dirty trick that would portray him as worrying about the public purse and fighting against the left, which the corporation is ostensibly meant to serve,” the source added.

The rift is not an imminent threat to the stability of the governing coalition, even though Kahlon heads a key coalition party whose departure would deprive the government of its parliamentary majority. But sources in Kahlon’s office said he feels a growing “disgust" over Netanyahu’s actions concerning the corporation, as well as other issues.

'Bibi is the chief inciter'

Due to their sour relations, Kahlon turned down Netanyahu’s invitation to accompany him on an official visit to China next week. Instead, Economy and Industry Minister Eli Cohen, a member of Kahlon’s Kulanu party, will go.

Last week, Kahlon and Netanyahu held what sources close to the finance minister termed a “difficult” conversation. Kahlon’s office is convinced that Netanyahu and his staff are deliberately provoking and directing the IBA workers’ protest against Kahlon in order to cast him as the bad guy in the story, even though the public broadcasting reform was approved by the previous cabinet and Knesset. At the time, Kahlon and his party weren’t even in the Knesset, much less the cabinet; the reform was pushed through by Netanyahu, then-Communications Minister Gilad Erdan and then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

A senior treasury official said that Shai Babad, the Finance Ministry’s director general, “came to work a few days ago while the incensed IBA employees were demonstrating by the entrance. They ambushed him, and he had to get help from riot police to enter the building. Let there be no doubt: Bibi is the chief inciter; this is his work.”

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 total control over all television and radio stations in the country, prompted Kahlon to tell Netanyahu at their meeting that “public broadcasting doesn’t interest you; you're only interested in having control.”

Kahlon charged that Netanyahu was “playing games” with him as if he were still a member of the prime minister’s Likud party.

“I left Likud; I’m not your number two or number three,” the former Likud MK and minister told Netanyahu. “You can’t play such games with me. There’s a human being sitting across from you. When there are achievements, you always show up. When there are problems, you disappear.”

Over the past week, IBA employees, who are slated to lose their jobs on April 30, have demonstrated in front of the Finance Ministry and blamed Kahlon for their fate. Kahlon has refused to accede to Netanyahu’s request that the government do a U-turn, shut down the newly formed corporation – which is slated to begin television, radio and internet broadcasts in less than six weeks – and revive the IBA, about half of whose workers have already quit. According to the treasury’s calculations, doing so would cost the state an extra 450 million shekels ($123 million) a year on top of the 700 million shekels already budgeted for the corporation.

The new media bill, a draft of which was circulated to all ministers late last week, took senior treasury officials by surprise. Despite having held discussions with the Communications Ministry over the bill’s wording, they were surprised by both the timing and the final wording, which wasn’t coordinated with them.

On Wednesday, the Finance Ministry stressed that it would not agree to everything in the draft bill. In particular, treasury officials oppose a provision authorizing the communications minister to directly appoint the chairman of the body that would supervise all electronic media outlets, without employing a search committee.

The serious rift between Kahlon and Netanyahu comes on top of what currently looks like a major crisis between Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi). Lieberman has decided to halt his ministry’s financial support for the religious pre-military academy in Eli because its co-director, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, refused to retract offensive statements he made against religious women who enlist in the army.