Frantic talks underway to avert early elections
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Frantic talks underway to avert early elections

Emerging compromise would reportedly join new broadcaster with Israel Broadcasting Authority, oust its current leaders

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 19, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 19, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi/Pool)

Facing the threat of new elections, officials and politicians were scrambling Monday to defuse a coalition crisis over the launch of a new public broadcaster to take the place of the aging Israel Broadcast Authority (IBA), slated for April 30.

In a bid to avert the government’s fall, representatives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon are holding an intense series of meetings this week intended to hammer out a compromise by Wednesday night, when Netanyahu is slated to return from China.

The prime minister, who backed the 2014 legislation that established the new broadcaster, has said in recent weeks that he changed his mind and concluded the new public corporation was a “mistake.” His key complaint was the law’s guarantee of greater editorial independence for the new agency.

When Kahlon moved to oppose Netanyahu’s bid to ground the new broadcaster, the prime minister threatened new elections.

On Sunday night, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, an ally of Netanyahu, met with Finance Ministry director Shai Babad. That was followed Monday by a meeting of Kahlon’s chief of staff Nadav Sheinberger and Likud’s coalition chairman, MK David Bitan.

According to Hebrew media reports, the talks arrived at a preliminary agreement that would see the new public broadcaster merged with the IBA, and its CEO, Eldad Koblentz, and chairman, Gil Omer, long criticized by Netanyahu, removed from their posts. The key point of contention — how the new oversight body’s leadership would be determined going forward — was not addressed by the reports.

Meanwhile, a draft bill being prepared by the Communications Ministry would place unprecedented political oversight over the new broadcaster, including allowing the communications minister to directly appoint its CEO and chairperson while expanding its authority to include the independent Army Radio.

The crisis came to a head on Saturday night, when, shortly before he boarded a plane for an official visit to China, Netanyahu said he was no longer willing to allow the launch of the new broadcaster to go forward, and demanded that fellow lawmakers join him in restoring and preserving the old broadcasting authority. If they did not, he reportedly warned, he’d call for new elections, which would otherwise not be scheduled until 2019.

Netanyahu’s threat backtracked on an earlier agreement with Kahlon that would have seen some government oversight introduced but allow the new corporation to launch on time.

Kahlon has vowed not to back down, saying the new broadcaster was already up and running, employing hundreds of people, and that shuttering it so late in the game in order to revive the IBA meant hundreds of millions of shekels in expenditures that were not budgeted for 2017.

Netanyahu’s election threat sparked shock among political leaders.

President Reuven Rivlin, left, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, right, at a conference for regional education department heads in Jerusalem on February 28, 2017. (Mark Neyman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin, left, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, right, at a conference for regional education department heads in Jerusalem on February 28, 2017. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin, on an official visit in Vietnam, called the prime minister’s announcement “a crazy thing.”

“The State of Israel stands before very consequential security, diplomatic and economic decisions,” Rivlin said on Monday. “To say there would be a cabinet crisis over public broadcasting? … Anyone who says that this political issue is make-or-break is abusing the public broadcaster.”

Asked about the prime minister’s demand for greater government oversight of the broadcaster, Rivlin said, “The question is whether public broadcasting will have commissars, whether it will be government broadcasting, or belong to the public and be for the public. To say that on this question you should bring down a government is a crazy thing.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Monday morning he was convinced Netanyahu was not earnestly seeking early elections.

Bennett told Israel Radio that all parties were interested in a calm resolution to the crisis and that he was “very optimistic” as to their eventual success.

As prime minister, Netanyahu has the power to call new elections. Only the president could prevent the vote, and then only if a majority of lawmakers agree to form an alternative government without elections. Yet Netanyahu’s threat faces stiff opposition across the coalition. Polls show that Kahlon’s Kulanu party could lose as many as half its 10 seats and Netanyahu’s own Likud perhaps half a dozen seats. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) is keen on remaining in his current post, his most senior political posting yet, while ultra-Orthodox coalition members Shas and United Torah Judaism fear the possibility that a new round of elections could be won by the centrist secularist Yesh Atid party of Yair Lapid.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset, December 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset, December 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Bennett, whose Jewish Home faction is the only one among the coalition members that would grow significantly according to recent polls, said he sympathized with the positions of both the prime minister and the finance minister.

He also noted that the coalition agreement that established the current government places questions of communications reform squarely in the hands of Likud.

“There is a consensus not to drag the country to elections,” Bennett said, which is “the last thing that anyone wants.”

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