Kahlon says he and Netanyahu ‘no longer an item’ as coalition falters
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Kahlon says he and Netanyahu ‘no longer an item’ as coalition falters

Ahead of Knesset recess, Deri proposes new elections in response to bickering between finance minister, PM over public broadcaster

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi/POOL)

Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon on Thursday declared that he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were “no longer an item,” prompting Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to propose new elections in yet another jolt to the increasingly unstable coalition.

Kahlon, the finance minister and a longtime ally of Netanyahu, was airing his grievances against the prime minister over the fate of the new public broadcaster.

Netanyahu, who was until recently also acting communications minister, has been leading a charge to abort the corporation before it goes on the air, in a long and complicated saga relating to the future of public broadcasting in Israel.

In a policy pivot late last year, the prime minister called for rehabilitating the ailing Israel Broadcasting Authority, the new broadcaster’s precursor, which his own Likud government had voted to disband. Kahlon, meanwhile, has fought for the establishment of a new state broadcaster, as legislated, and with reduced government meddling.

On Wednesday evening, at an event that was designed to strengthen coalition camaraderie amid recent tensions, Netanyahu called for a six-month delay in opening the public broadcaster, which is set to go live in April. The call came on the heels of protests this week by IBA workers, many of whom are set to lose their jobs when the new corporation begins broadcasting.

By Thursday morning, speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv, Kahlon revealed that his relationship with the prime minister had deteriorated amid clashes over the new broadcaster.

“Kahlon and Netanyahu are no longer an item,” he said.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri attends a press conference during the Shas faction meeting in the Knesset on February 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri attends a press conference during the Shas faction meeting in the Knesset on February 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking ahead of a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Shas party leader Deri argued that new elections were preferable to incessant coalition spats.

“I said yesterday at what should have been a team-building event that governments don’t collapse over the big things but rather over the little things. It’s a shame as it seems like the rift is getting worse. I don’t plan to stay in a government that’s based on dirty tricks and attempts to take one another out. If people can’t get along, then it’s better to hold new elections,” he said.

Finance Ministry officials also criticized Netanyahu Wednesday for his about-face in declaring his support for the workers of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, noting his past criticism of the state media outlet as left-wing and supportive of terrorism.

“Netanyahu seems to have forgotten who called [IBA workers] Hamas members and legislated a law limiting their absorption into the [new] broadcaster,” sources in the Finance Ministry were quoted by Hebrew media as saying.

In 2014, the Knesset passed broad reforms that would close the IBA, which politicians at the time described as increasingly irrelevant and costly, and replace it with the new broadcasting corporation. It originally called for the establishment of the new broadcaster by March 31, 2015.

The legislation, advanced by then-communications minister Gilad Erdan, who is now the public security minister, aimed to ensure greater editorial independence for the new corporation compared to the IBA, exempting it from government oversight rules that apply to most other public corporations and severely curtailing the ability of politicians to intervene in content and senior staff appointments.

The newly built control room at the offices of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, in Tel Aviv. August 29, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
The newly built control room at the offices of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, in Tel Aviv. August 29, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

But following efforts by Netanyahu to delay the opening until 2018, and a Likud-led bill to cancel the legislation altogether, the corporation’s management announced in October that it would be ready to begin broadcasting on January 1, 2017. It was later delayed again until April.

Likud officials have claimed that nixing the new corporation would save the state some NIS 2.5 billion ($658 million), a figure later ridiculed by the Finance Ministry and Erdan. Critics from both the coalition and the opposition say the real reason for the move is Netanyahu’s fear of the corporation’s political independence.

The past week, which comes ahead of the Knesset recess, saw Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leaders of the coalition Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home parties, go head-to-head Wednesday over a demand by Liberman that a rabbi who heads a pre-military academy step down after making disparaging remarks about female IDF soldiers.

And the United Torah Judaism party threatened this week it would not vote with the coalition next week unless a committee overseeing school licensing was established by Monday. The coalition agreements between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox party in 2015 stipulated that the committee would be set up within 60 days of the establishment of the government.

The Knesset will break for its spring recess on March 26.

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