Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon both reportedly puffed their chests and declared their willingness to head to new elections Saturday night, as a coalition crisis between the two that could bring down the government appeared to worsen.
The crisis was sparked early Saturday evening when Netanyahu backtracked on an agreement with Kahlon to set up a new public broadcasting corporation.
Infuriated, Kahlon was reported to have contacted opposition leader Isaac Herzog and discussed the possibility of introducing a no-confidence motion to fell the government.
“I can gain or lose from elections, but Kahlon can just lose,” Netanyahu reportedly said during a meeting with advisers, according to a Channel 2 news report.
The prime minister ignored questions from reporters about the possibility of early elections before boarding a plane to China at 1 a.m. Sunday morning, but appeared to remain firm in opposition to the creation of the new public broadcaster, saying it was within his rights to scrap the plan as part of coalition agreements.
“The government is based on coalition agreements, and there is a coalition agreement that says clearly that all parties are beholden to the decisions of the Likud, of us, on communications issues, including the new public broadcaster, unless there is a budget issue,” he said.
Netanyahu said it had become clear to him there was no budget issue, with the old public broadcaster being cheaper to operate than setting up a new one — meant to replace the aging, allegedly inefficient Israel Broadcasting Authority, which has suffered from low ratings and poor visibility for years — and thus it was up to him, and not Kahlon, to decide on its fate.
“There can’t be a situation where Likud, with 30 Knesset seats, respects every part of the coalition agreements of the small parties, including things we don’t agree with … but when it comes to our parts of the agreement, which are important to the Likud and to me, that’s not respected,” he said. “That’s not acceptable to me.”
Netanyahu was earlier reported to have told Likud ministers at his home on Saturday that if Kahlon does not agree to scrap the new broadcaster, “we’ll go to elections.” In the elections, he further reportedly said, Kahlon’s Kulanu would be wiped off the political map, and then he would pass legislation to cancel the new corporation.
Kahlon remained silent Saturday night, but sources close to the Kulanu leader, himself a former Likud politician, said he was not worried about bringing down the government over the issue.
“The prime minister knows Kahlon’s number. and if he wants to renege on his agreement — he should call,” a source close to Kahlon said, according to the Ynet news site. “If Netanyahu wants elections, Kahlon isn’t afraid of them. The broadcaster will be set up as agreed.”
The crisis, seen as the most serious to threaten Netanyahu’s government since it was sworn in nearly two years ago, came to a head when Netanyahu posted on Facebook Saturday that he changed his mind about setting up the new broadcaster — formally called Kan and widely known as HaTa’agid (the Corporation) — after meeting Friday with representatives of the IBA. “During the meeting it became clear that, in contrast to the Treasury’s figures, maintaining the IBA is millions of shekels cheaper than setting up the new corporation. So why set up the new corporation?”
The prime minister’s change of mind means he is reneging on an agreement he reached with Kahlon on Monday to launch the new broadcaster by April 30.
In an interview with Channel 2’s Meet the Press Saturday evening, Coalition chairman Bitan confirmed the prime minister “changed his mind” on his agreement with Kahlon and acknowledged the possibility of early elections.
“If the current situation continues, and (other coalition parties) continue to force polices on us that we don’t want, then we could be going to elections,” Bitan said. Elections are currently not scheduled until March 2019.
Bitan said it was unacceptable for other coalition politicians to constantly be “demanding their own agendas,” and claimed that Likud would easily win new elections, with at least 30 Knesset seats — the number it won in the last elections, in 2015.
Herzog, head of the Zionist Union, tweeted his goal of unseating the government, but some reports said he would prefer to set up an alternative coalition rather than go to new elections, in which his party was likely to fare badly.
“The Zionist Union, headed by me, will cooperate with a moderate, social minded and responsible Zionist bloc to replace the prime minister,” Herzog said. “We make efforts to gain wide support for a constructive vote of no confidence in the government.”
A poll published on Channel 10 on Friday evening found that the ruling Likud would win 26 Knesset seats if elections were held today, with centrist party Yesh Atid on 25. Zionist Union, an amalgamation of Labor with the short-lived Hatnua party, continued its decline with only 10 expected Knesset seats. Kahlon’s Kulanu party got 6 seats in the survey, down from its current 10.
With results as predicted by the poll, Likud could easily muster a coalition, partnering with Jewish Home, Yisrael Beytenu, UTJ, Shas and Kulanu, to total 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
On Twitter, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Whose Jewish Home is the next largest party in the coalition after Kulanu, cautioned against early elections.
“I call on everyone to act responsibly and prevent expensive and unneeded elections that will harm the economy and the country’s citizens,” he wrote on Twitter. “With a little good will, the broadcaster crisis can be solved.”
Netanyahu, who was until recently also acting communications minister, oversaw passage of the law to establish the new corporation but has long been leading an effort to abort it before it goes on the air, complaining of a lack of government control of the corporation’s editorial line, which may be critical of his government.
Kahlon, meanwhile, has fought for the establishment of the new broadcaster, as legislated, and with reduced government meddling.
Netanyahu seemed to have given in on the fight over the broadcaster until Wednesday night, when he tried to rally party members by saying that it was not too late to thwart its opening. After Kahlon responded angrily, the two appeared to have patched up their differences on Thursday, but that fell apart with Netanyahu’s Facebook post.
Netanyahu is also facing two separate corruption probes that could see him ousted from power, which has also led to rumors of the possibility of early elections.