Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prompted intensified talk of early elections on Saturday by backtracking on an agreement with his finance minister to set up a new public broadcasting corporation.
If Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon refuses to scrap the new broadcaster, Netanyahu was reported to have told Likud ministers at his home on Saturday, “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.
Infuriated, Kahlon was reported to have contacted opposition leader Isaac Herzog and discussed the possibility of introducing a motion of no-confidence in the government. “If Netanyahu wants elections, we’ll have elections,” Kulanu party leader Kahlon was said to have told colleagues.
“Netanyahu has lost his shame and is behaving irresponsibly,” a Kulanu party official told Army Radio late Saturday. “He has decided it suits him to go to elections; the broadcaster is just an excuse.”
Political analysts on Israel’s Channel 2 news suggested that the corruption allegations Netanyahu is currently fighting might be a factor in his tactics, and that he might deem it useful to have the possibility available of a rapid resort to elections as the police investigations into his conduct come to a head. His Likud is also faring fairly well in current opinion polls. Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu party, by contrast, is losing ground.
Netanyahu posted on Facebook that “I changed my mind” about setting up the new broadcaster after meeting Friday with representatives of the current entity, the Israel Broadcasting Authority (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?”
He also said that: “In the meeting I heard heartbreaking stories about experienced and dedicated workers who are being fired because of the new broadcaster.”
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.
Netanyahu, who was leaving for China later Saturday night, held consultations with several key colleagues, including Likud ministers Miri Regev, Yariv Levin and Tzahi Hanegbi, and coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) about the likely political fallout from his change of stance.
In an interview with Channel 2’s Meet the Press Saturday evening, 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.
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.
“More than a million Likud voters have put their trust in us and expect us to demand that coalition agreements are honored,” Bitan said later Saturday. “The ball is the finance minister’s court. We expect that our coalition partners will support us on the issues that are important to the Likud just as we back them up on issues that they advance. The IBA finished the financial year in a balanced and responsible way, and there is no reason to allow 1,000 families (of IBA employees) to lose their salaries on the eve of Passover.”
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.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman told Walla news that his United Torah Judaism party has no stake in the broadcaster issue, “but if they decide to go to elections over it, we’ll go. In my opinion it’s unnecessary but as I said we’ll contend with every outcome.”
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. Kahlon, meanwhile, has fought for the establishment of the new broadcaster, as legislated, and with reduced government meddling.
At a cultural event in Beersheba on Saturday morning, Bitan said Likud “will not be coerced… not by Kulanu and not by Jewish Home. If the threats and statements continue, there’s a good chance we’ll go to elections.”
He added: “Jewish Home and Kulanu say the cabinet depends on them. If Likud and the prime minister have enough of it, we’ll dismantle it all and go to the polls.”
Meanwhile, Litzman’s United Torah Judaism threatened 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.
With ongoing police investigations into Netanyahu in several separate cases leaving his political future unclear, all parties appear to be gearing up for new elections in the not-too-distant future.