Senior Likud ministers butted heads Sunday over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threats to call early elections if his coalition refuses to cancel reforms that would give state media greater editorial independence.
The long-simmering crisis escalated Saturday evening when Netanyahu backtracked on an agreement with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to set up a new public broadcasting corporation. If Kahlon refused to scrap the new broadcaster, “we’ll go to elections,” Netanyahu was reported to have told Likud ministers at his home.
But speaking on Sunday morning radio shows, senior members of his party appeared anything but united over the prospect of new elections, which could put the Likud-led coalition at risk and jeopardize the party’s 30 Knesset seats.
Netanyahu, for his part, left Israel on Saturday night for China, where he landed on Sunday for a three-day visit.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz roundly rejected the notion, telling Army Radio that “the elections for the next Knesset have been set for November 2019 and there is no reason whatsoever to bring them forward” due to a disagreement over the public broadcaster.
“There are no disagreements in this coalition on the main issues, and you don’t go to elections over a disagreement about the media,” he said. “The State of Israel doesn’t need elections right now in my opinion, and I don’t think it will happen. It’s not in the state’s interest.”
In 2014, the Knesset passed broad reforms that would close the Israel Broadcasting Authority and replace it with a state-funded corporation formally called “Kan” and widely known as HaTa’agid (The Corporation). Despite having supported the original legislation, Netanyahu has repeatedly delayed the launch of the new broadcaster and is now trying to scrap it completely.
Seen as a powerful rival to Netanyahu within Likud, and having clashed with the prime minister on a number of occasions, Katz said that the party wasn’t properly consulted regarding the prospect of elections over the issue.
“No decision has been made in any necessary party forum, not by Likud ministers, not by the Likud Knesset faction, and not by the party institutions,” Katz said, adding that he would oppose the move and expected others to join him.
Writing on Twitter, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud) backed up Katz, saying that there was no justification for early elections. “We have a strong right-wing coalition, there is no reason for drastic moves that would break up the government,” she wrote. Several other Likud MKs also expressed worry over snap elections.
But Culture Minister Miri Regev, considered a loyalist to the prime minister, appeared on a number of news outlets to defend Netanyahu’s election threats, saying that Kahlon had caused the crisis by breaking coalition agreements that gave the prime minister full authority on decisions pertaining to the media.
“A prime minister cannot be in a situation where coalition agreements are ignored. Likud supported proposals from other parties that we had problems with, and other parties must do the same,” she told Army Radio, saying there was no financial issue that merited a veto from Kahlon.
“Yes,” she said emphatically, “we will blow it all up over the principle of fulfilling coalition agreements.”
Coalition chair David Bitan (Likud), another Netanyahu ally, told Israel Radio that it was unacceptable for other coalition politicians to constantly be “demanding their own agendas,” and claimed that Likud would easily win new elections, garnering at least the 30 Knesset seats it won in the last elections, in 2015.
Writing on Facebook Saturday night, Netanyahu said it had become clear to him there was no budgetary issue requiring the government to replace the aging Israel Broadcasting Authority with the new broadcasting corporation, and that it was thus up to him, not Finance Minister Kahlon, to decide 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 Likud and to me, that’s not respected. That’s not acceptable to me,” Netanyahu wrote.
Infuriated, Kahlon was reported to have contacted opposition leader Isaac Herzog later that night to discuss the possibility of introducing a no-confidence motion to fell the government.
Speaking to Army Radio Sunday, Herzog said he was ready to go to elections but would prefer to set up an alternative coalition. “I have counted 61 MKs [in the 120-seat House] who would like to replace this prime minister within the current Knesset,” he said, floating the idea of a no-confidence plenum vote to form a new coalition without elections.
“There are enough reasonable voices in the coalition to replace the prime minister. I call on Kahlon to resign from the coalition and join me,” he said.
Netanyahu, who was until recently also acting communications minister, has long been leading an effort to abort the broadcasting corporation before it goes on the air, complaining of a lack of government control over 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 it was not too late to thwart its opening. After Kahlon responded angrily, the two appeared to patch up their differences on Thursday. But that fell apart with Netanyahu’s Facebook post.
Netanyahu is also facing two corruption probes that could see him ousted from power, another element that has spawned rumors of early elections.