Hebrew media review

Anatomy of a crisis

Netanyahu throws a wrench into his coalition’s machinery, but is it a masterful move to keep allies in line or the act of a mad king?

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on March 8, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on March 8, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Barely two years after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was formed, all the papers can talk about on Sunday morning is its apparently imminent demise. A coalition crisis is in full swing, sending Israel’s preeminent pundits scrambling to find people to blame and issues to make the center of the agenda. With all the attention going to the possibility of fresh elections, relatively little attention is given to the Israeli airstrike on Syria early Friday morning and the rocket fire rupturing southern Israel’s weekend calm.

To virtually nobody’s surprise, the free daily Israel Hayom is sympathetic to Netanyahu, explaining his position on its front page that the existing public broadcaster would cost less than the proposed new one set to be rolled out. “What do we need it for?” Netanyahu is quoted in the paper’s headline, setting the tone of the rest of the article. It quotes senior Likud official Yariv Levin saying that with 30 seats, the ruling party can stick to its guns despite pressure from its coalition allies.

The paper exhibits the most balanced manner of reporting by quoting Likud ministers throughout the first five paragraphs of its main report, only getting around to the Kulanu party’s counterpoint in paragraph six.

What others perceive as the premier’s paranoia is what Mati Tuchfeld calls “political sensors on maximum sensitivity,” and when Netanyahu “detects sparks of non-compliance by one of the coalition partners, he projects [the message] that the master of the house is willing to go all-in, come what may.”

“It’s not just the broadcaster and it’s not just Kahlon,” he writes, arguing that this whole crisis was a brilliant masterstroke by Netanyahu to keep his coalition partners in line. “It’s also [Jewish Home party leader] Naftali Bennett, who just a couple of days ago said that Netanyahu has neglected religious Zionism. It’s also Liberman, who though he appears Netanyahu’s most trusted partner, nonetheless his comments about closing the yeshiva in [the West Bank settlement of] Eli sent the prime minister down a dead end.”

If Israel Hayom takes the defensive stance in Netanyahu’s favor, Yedioth Ahronoth comes out swinging against the prime minister. It dispenses with any semblance of reportage in the opening pages, leading instead with that fearsome duo of twin op-eds by mainstay pundits Nahum Barnea and Sima Kadmon.

Like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, Netanyahu has solidified his grip on his party in his fourth term in office but is cursed to “self-destruct,” Barnea expounds. The economy is strong, the country is secure, Likud is joined by right wing parties in ruling the country, and he’s welcomed in Moscow, Beijing and Washington with open arms, Barnea says.

“Crises like thse are born on WhatsApp and die on WhatsApp,” he says. “All it needs is intervention by the prime minister.” Netanyahu’s sudden interest in the fates of Israel Broadcasting Authority workers is “the most baseless crisis,” Barnea says.

Netanyahu was the one who passed the bill through the Knesset to disband the “corrupt, bloated and unnecessary” IBA that had been under his wing for years. “Kahlon stands against him not because the public broadcaster is dear to his heart or pocket, but because there’s a limit to his willingness to be a mop.”

Kadmon likewise calls out Netanyahu for flipflopping on the public broadcasting corporation issue, but says that the broadcaster isn’t the real issue at hand at all. She charges that it’s his wife, Sara Netanyahu, calling the shots because of a personal dislike of certain journalists hired by the new broadcaster. “It’s clear to everyone close to the prime minister that something is going on when Netanyahu is susceptible to the influence of his relatives.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, wake up. This is your prime minister. The man making a list of critical decisions, like which response we should take against Gaza, or what to do about Iran’s power in Syria. Is this the man you would let make fateful decisions? Wait, would you buy a car from this man?”

Haaretz‘s Chemi Shalev compares Netanyahu to Titus. For destroying Jerusalem? No, because “Netanyahu also has a mosquito buzzing in his head driving him crazy” in the form of the media, he writes. Netanyahu will found and ruin coalitions until he silences the irritating journalists, he charges.

“Some analysts connect the flipflop that Netanyahu did over the weekend to his relative’s waverings,” he writes. “Others are certain that it’s an initiative aimed at somehow saving him from an approaching indictment. There are still others who say that Netanyahu is simply puffing out his chest with Moshe Kahlon specifically, and his coalition partners in general, to bring them back into line, with no real intention to go to the polls.”

All these things are right, he says, but they miss the point: “Netanyahu’s treatment of the press is irrational and it’s eating him up inside.”

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