Furious Regev bashes Liberman and Kahlon for blocking her culture loyalty bill

Culture minister accuses both of giving in to terror by not fully backing legislation that would pull funding from artists deemed disloyal, accuses them of working for dovish NGO

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Culture Minister Miri Regev holds a press conference on the "Culture Loyalty Bill" at the Knesset, November 26, 2018. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)
Culture Minister Miri Regev holds a press conference on the "Culture Loyalty Bill" at the Knesset, November 26, 2018. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Culture Minister Miri Regev launched a scathing attack Monday against fellow cabinet member Moshe Kahlon and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, after they effectively blocked the passage of a bill granting her the power to withhold arts funding based on political criteria.

During a a tense press conference that saw journalists verbally assailed by her supporters, Regev said that Kahlon, the finance minister, and Liberman have “given a gift to terrorists” by refusing to back her bill, “shirked their responsibility” to the public and proved that they “work for the New Israel Fund,” the left-wing NGO that has become a bogeyman for right-wing lawmakers.

The bill, which has been criticized as a form of censorship, would allow the culture minister to pull state funding from artists whose works are deemed disloyal to the state.

In a half hour diatribe, Regev slammed Kahlon, who supports the bill, for saying he would let lawmakers from his Kulanu party vote as they saw fit, after one MK said she would oppose the bill. Regev also slung brickbats at Liberman for conditioning Yisrael Beytenu’s support on backing for its own bill to make it easier for Israel to sentence convicted Palestinian terrorists to death.

“This law is not about right and left. It’s Zionist, it’s the right thing to do, it’s the right thing for the Israeli society and all those who want to preserve the state’s strength,” she said.

“This bill stops money going into the pockets of terrorists,” she added, without providing examples, “but Kahlon and Liberman have shirked their responsibility to stop such funding.”

Regev said they were trying to bring down the government and had put personal political ambition over their obligation to “the national camp, the Israeli public, and bereaved families” who she said had suffered from state-funded theater productions glorifying terrorists.

The so-called Culture Loyalty Bill would allow the government to pull funding from organizations or events that feature any of five topics or themes: denial that the State of Israel is a Jewish, democratic country; incitement to racism, violence, or terror; support for the armed struggle or acts of terror against Israel by an enemy state or a terror group; marking Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning; or any act of destruction or physical degradation of the flag or any state symbol.

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria said on Sunday that the bill would be “difficult to support” if it comes up for its scheduled final plenary vote on Monday. Meanwhile, veteran Likud MK Benny Begin informed coalition chair David Amsalem that he would also vote against the bill, according to Likud sources.

With the coalition holding on to power with a razor-thin 61-59 majority, every vote needs either bipartisan backing or total coalition support to pass.

While the Finance Ministry is currently responsible for final decisions on withholding such state funding, Regev’s bill would transfer full power over budgets for the arts to her ministry.

With Kahlon and Liberman’s announcements effectively blocking the bill’s passage, it was removed from Monday’s plenary schedule. It had been set for a final vote during the afternoon session.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, speaks with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, November 18, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Regev said that the law should be above politics, presenting it as part of an effort to prevent terror.

The press conference was attended by a number of Regev’s supporters, including activists from the Almagor NGO representing families of terror victims. After journalists protested Regev’s initial refusal to answer questions, a number of her supporters hurled verbal attacks at them, calling certain reporters epithets such as “bitch,” “traitor” and “son of a whore.”

Eventually agreeing to answer questions, Regev said that Liberman, who resigned as defense minister earlier this month over the government’s restrained response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, was desperate for elections and was using the bill as a way to weaken the coalition.

“His loyalty is only to his ego. Not to his voters, not the the right, not to the Israeli public. He wants to bring down the government together with [Joint (Arab) List MK Ahmed] Tibi,” she said. “Liberman, together with Tibi is giving money to terrorists and to terror.”

Having pushed up his party’s faction meeting so as to pre-empt Regev, Liberman said minutes earlier that unless his agenda is advanced, his Yisrael Beytenu faction would vote against all bills brought by the coalition, even if it agrees with their content. He explicitly singled the Culture Loyalty Bill as one his party will no longer support.

Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a Likud party conference in Lod, on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Liberman accused the Likud party of prioritizing the passage of the so-called “Gideon Sa’ar Bill,” which would limit who Israel’s president can select as prime minister following an election to the head of the largest elected Knesset faction, over more substantive bills that matter to the “nationalist camp.”

The Gideon Sa’ar Bill is seen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters as key to ensuring Netanyahu secures a fourth consecutive term as premier after the next election.

“The coalition has 61 members in parliament,” Liberman said. “Its problem is that some members, like [Likud MK] Benny Begin and the Kulanu faction are opposed to the culture bill. We’re willing to support any law that fits our views, including the culture bill.”

But, Liberman added, “Likud had one condition: that we support the Gideon Sa’ar Bill,” a demand he could not agree to. He therefore blamed Likud for effectively stopping the passage of the rest of the right-wing’s legislative agenda.

As for Kahlon, Regev said he was “wants to bring down the government from within” and was also playing politics.

“He says that he supports the law but don’t let his smug smile to fool you. He has given a free vote to his party when he knows that some will oppose,” she said.

“Don’t use your party as a fig leaf. You know that you can order them to vote how you want, but you won’t,” she said in a direct message to the Kulanu leader.

During his own faction meeting following Regev’s press conference, Kahlon denied Regev’s claim, saying that “the 61-seat majority is the problem,” not him. “Every controversial law requires that we reach an agreement.”

Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon holds a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 26, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Under these circumstances, Kahlon said, early elections appear to be inevitable.

“Let’s be honest, the coalition is flimsy. I don’t want to topple the government, but we are here to act, not to just survive. A government that is struggling to survive isn’t getting anything done… elections are on the way,” he said.

“They both work for the New Israel Fund,” she charged.”The New Israel Fund has won its their campaign against the bill. Liberman and Kahlon have acted just like they wanted.”

The bill has been criticized by artists, the Knesset’s legal adviser and a deputy attorney general. Critics say it will essentially enshrine state censorship over the arts.

Regev has in the past made numerous threats to cut state funding for cultural productions and organizations that she deems to be disloyal to the state since assuming her role as culture minister, following the 2015 elections.

Two years ago, she walked out of the Ophir awards — Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars — when a poem by late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was read, because his work contains objections to the existence of a Jewish state.

She also panned last year’s critically acclaimed film “Foxtrot” as a defamation of Israel. The story of parents grieving the loss of their son is largely allegorical, but Regev insisted the film — which includes a scene of IDF soldiers committing a war crime — amounted to “self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative.” After its release, Regev asked the Israeli film funds to provide detailed information about the approval process for movies, in an attempt to clamp down on state funding for movies critical of Israeli government policies.

Earlier this month, Regev asked the Finance Ministry to examine the financing of the Haifa International Film Festival, due to the screening of “subversive” films. The Walla news site reported that the two films to attract the minister’s ire were “Out,” which tells the story of a former IDF soldier who joins a right-wing organization that tries to damage the reputation of human rights activists, and “Acre Dreams,” which depicts a love affair between a Jew and an Arab at the time of the British Mandate.

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