What in the world is Netanyahu up to?
The breathtaking ridiculousness of Israel's current coalition crisis

What in the world is Netanyahu up to?

Op-ed: There's no shortage of real challenges to Israel's security and well-being right now. So why is the PM zigging and zagging about the minor matter of the state broadcaster, and threatening new elections?

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Jason Reed/Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Jason Reed/Pool Photo via AP)

Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday featured a cartoon potently underlining the breathtaking ridiculousness of Israel’s current coalition crisis. It shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara frozen in horror beneath a caption that reads “Existential Threat.” To their left are arrayed incoming rockets from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. But these mounting threats to Israel are not the cause of the cartoon Netanyahu couple’s concern. The “Existential Threat” they are staring at, to their right, is a TV anchor named Geula Even-Sa’ar, reading the nightly news on behalf of what is supposed to be the new state broadcasting corporation, which is scheduled to launch on April 30.

Netanyahu is in China this week, upgrading relations with a key world power. On Saturday night, hours before he took off, he initiated a coalition crisis by zigging once more on the matter of the new corporation. He posted on Facebook that he had “changed his mind” and no longer backed its establishment — despite having himself voted for the legislation under which it was set up — since he had internalized afresh that hundreds of workers at the outgoing state broadcaster, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, would lose their jobs, and that the new service would be no cheaper. In which case, he asked plaintively, “Why set up the new corporation?”

If Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon won’t cancel the new broadcaster, Netanyahu has reportedly been telling some of his closer Likud ministerial colleagues, he’ll call new elections — barely two years after the last ones (which, in case you’ve forgotten, were held two years after the previous ones, because Netanyahu fired two of his ministers, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, for ostensible disloyalty).

The good lord knows what the prime minister is up to. As, possibly, does Netanyahu’s wife.

The rest of the Israeli punditocracy is reduced to speculation. Among the theories:

1) Netanyahu wants to humiliate Kahlon, a former Likud minister who had the temerity to abandon Likud, set up his own party, and might one day seek to challenge him for the prime ministership. Polls show that Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which has 10 seats in the Knesset, might fall to six or fewer if elections were held today, and therefore Netanyahu thinks Kahlon is vulnerable.

A cartoon in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday, March 21, 2017
A cartoon in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday, March 21, 2017

2) Netanyahu thinks new elections might make it harder for the attorney-general to indict him in one or more of the various corruption cases for which he is currently under investigation. The notion that it would be more difficult for the state to press charges against a newly elected, freshly endorsed Netanyahu has been widely cited in the Hebrew media this week, even though it seems to make little sense. Surely a resort to new elections, a process that is legally required to take at least three months, would constitute an incentive for the state prosecutors to accelerate their investigations and reach a definitive conclusion one way or another on pressing charges before the country goes to the polls.

3) Netanyahu is obsessed by a desire to maximize his control over the media in Israel, as evidenced by his alleged discussion of a quid pro quo deal with Arnon “Noni” Mozes, publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling tabloid. Under this alleged deal, Mozes was supposedly going to give Netanyahu more favorable coverage in Yedioth if the prime minister would curb the reach of the country’s most-read tabloid, Sheldon Adelson’s free, slavishly pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom. (The alleged Netanyahu-Mozes deal is at the heart of one of the corruption probes afflicting the prime minister; Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.)

Netanyahu has become increasingly publicly critical of the media, Trump-style, and recently branded the entire mesh of investigations against him a product of the “left-wing, Bolshevik” media’s efforts to have him indicted. (Was this same “left-wing, Bolshevik” media responsible for the investigation, resignation, and ultimate conviction and jailing of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who was following a left-wing agenda when he was forced out of office? Netanyahu didn’t say.) And he has recognized that the new broadcasting corporation is going to be fiercely independent and has hired management and reporters who are not all Netanyahu acolytes.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and television news anchor Geula Even (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (left) and television news anchor Geula Even. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Moshe Shai/Flash90)

In this theory, the fact that the new corporation has hired Geula Even-Sa’ar as its main intended news anchor can only have infuriated Netanyahu further. Even-Sa’ar is an experienced and highly regarded news anchor. She also just happens to be married to Gideon Sa’ar, another former Likud minister who is currently on a time-out from politics, but who Netanyahu correctly regards as another potential prime ministerial rival.

4) There is a fourth theory, to which nobody gives any credence whatsoever: That Netanyahu has genuinely, if belatedly, come to believe that dismantling the IBA is a terrible mistake, and that its staff members deserve to keep their jobs. This theory is dismissed, in part because Netanyahu has long been a bitter critic of the IBA, whose ostensible anti-Israel orientation was a central feature of his own TV ads ahead of the last election, and in part because if Netanyahu ever wanted to keep the IBA, all he had to do was nothing. Instead, he oversaw the legislation for its closure.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks during a press conference at the Ministry of Education in Tel Aviv on March 19, 2017 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks during a press conference at the Ministry of Education in Tel Aviv on March 19, 2017 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

If you’re still following this political soap opera, you have my admiration, and my commiseration. Most relevantly, one must offer commiseration, too, to all Israelis. As that Yedioth cartoon made clear, Israel, as ever, does not have the luxury of engaging in political shenanigans. Hamas is tunneling, Hezbollah is deepening its military skills in Syria and boosting its missile arsenals. The Syrian border is heating up. The intelligence services are warning of terror attacks planned by Hamas for Passover. Iran is as belligerent as ever, emboldened by the nuclear deal, and seeking to establish an ever-more permanent presence in Syria… The list goes on.

Instead of focusing primarily on such genuinely critical issues, Netanyahu has made the fate of the state broadcaster, which hardly anyone watches or listens to anyway, the key focus of his coalition.

It would seem unlikely that Netanyahu would benefit from a resort, again, to early elections. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid is performing well in the polls. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home has a bitter grudge to settle with Netanyahu after being outmaneuvered by him in the run-up to the 2015 vote. The Likud party might find itself weakened, possibly even lacking the seats to lead a new coalition. But one should never underestimate Benjamin Netanyahu’s political skills.

What one must increasingly question, however, are his priorities.

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