1. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is off to the United States to speak at the policy conference of pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and meet with US President Donald Trump, but before taking off, his mind seemed to be mired in domestic matters, telling reporters that early elections are not a foregone conclusion amid a simmering coalition crisis.
- “There is no reason for us to go to early elections, and with goodwill that will not happen,” Netanyahu said.
- Yet United Torah Judaism head Yaakov Litzman, who is threatening to withhold support for the budget over suspension of a law mandating the drafting of soldiers from the ultra-Orthodox community, does not seem to plan on backing down, telling the Haredi Hamodia newspaper that after conferring with the rabbinical leadership of his party, he’ll be sticking to his guns (to not stick to guns).
- Et tu, Moshe? Israel Hayom’s front page reports that “the chances of elections are rising,” after Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon told Netanyahu he would collapse the coalition should a budget not pass by March 15.
- Columnist Moti Tuchfeld notes in the paper that by coalition agreement, the government doesn’t need to pass a law reforming the ultra-Orthodox draft, as UTJ is insisting be done now, until the fall. “The coalition has worked hard to pass all the laws the ultra-Orthodox demanded; it’s not clear why experienced and season politicians such as these don’t understand that pressing the draft law now is one request too many,” he writes.
- The Yedioth Ahronoth daily skips way ahead and looks at potential dates for elections, noting that if the coalition falls in March, 90 days of electioneering would put the vote in late June, but if it does not happen then, it would need to wait until October, after the summer recess and fall holidays.
2. While Netanyahu has been traversing the Atlantic in the air, some trouble has been brewing on the ground, after Culture Minister Miri Regev, who is taking his place as largely ceremonial acting PM, compared investigators to traitorous plotters Bigthan and Teresh from the Purim story.
- “We have been elected by the people, but there are advisers and bureaucrats who have gotten used to deciding what is right and what isn’t — these days they are called the ‘gatekeepers,’” Regev told attendees at a Purim banquet. “The Book of Esther also features gatekeepers. Bigthan and Teresh. A lovely pair.”
- Yedioth Ahronoth accuses the minister of incitement on its front page, and quotes Yuval Rabin, whose father Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination has also been ascribed to an atmosphere of incitement, calling her remarks “dangerous.”
- Regev clarified her remarks Sunday morning saying they had been distorted. “I didn’t call for harming anyone,” she wrote on Facebook.
- But critics nonetheless are slamming her, including coalition partner Rachel Azaria. “What gives you the right to bash the gatekeepers? The people who do their work for all of us — police officers, judges and prosecutors,” Azaria asks her, speaking to the Kan public broadcaster.
- Another MK, Yoel Hasson from the opposition Zionist Union, has filed a Knesset Ethics Committee complaint against the minister and in Haaretz’s op-ed page, former MK Nitzan Horowitz writes about the time he and Regev were at the same social justice protest and she filed a quickly dismissed complaint against him for not protecting her from protesters. “The Ethics Committee rejected it entirely. The decision went to the Knesset and triggered lots of smiles there,” he writes.
3. Regev’s comments come days after Netanyahu and his wife spent the Purim holiday with investigators looking into bribery allegations in the Bezeq scandal.
- Channel 10 news, which has been leading coverage of the scandal, reports that Netanyahu defended himself by saying he spoke to Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch about better coverage in the Walla new site, which Elovitch also owns, out of ideological motivations.
- The channel also says Sara Netanyahu, presented with texts showing her apparently pushing Iris Elovitch, wife of Bezeq and Walla new site owner Shaul Elovitch, to fire the Walla editor for not giving them favorable enough coverage (or “slaughtering them,” in Netanyahu’s words), told police she turned to her as a friend.
- Hadashot news reports that police say they have “concrete” suspicions and “solid” evidence against Netanyahu in this case, which is more serious than the affairs he is suspected of.
4. After two weeks behind bars, Elovitch and former Netanyahu adviser Nir Hefetz have been granted conditional release from prison Sunday. The court however, acceded to a police request to keep them under house arrest for a further 10 days as the investigation continues.
- The releases mean that former Communications Ministry head Shlomo Filber, who has turned state’s witness, is the only person remaining behind bars. Haaretz reports that another former senior ministry official, who was appointed by Netanyahu and approved a deal between Bezeq and the Yes satellite TV provider under suspicion, was questioned by police, but released with no conditions. The person’s name is gagged.
5. Netanyahu is set to meet Trump early this week and speak at the AIPAC summit in Washington. Yedioth notes that the trip is being “overshadowed” by Netanyahu’s investigations, though the premier is trying to “project a business as usual attitude and dismiss murmurs of him being a lame duck.”
- According to Israel Hayom, the meeting between the two will be the fifth since Trump took office just over a year ago.
- Policy adviser Shlomo Lipner tells The New York Times that after years of dealing with adversarial presidents, Netanyahu is now enjoying with Trump “his moment in the sun.”
- An official itinerary for the trip has not yet been released but the prime minister is scheduled to speak at the Economic Club of Washington on Wednesday before flying to New York to attend a farewell event that evening for Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who is stepping down after nine years in the role. On Thursday, before flying back to Israel, Netanyahu is also scheduled to attend the opening of an exhibition at the United Nations headquarters displaying Jerusalem artifacts.
6. Before taking off, the prime minister told reporters he would invite Trump to Jerusalem for the dedication of the US Embassy, AFP reports.
- Security guards and workers there told a Times of Israel correspondent on a non-reporting trip to the Jerusalem consulate on Thursday that they did not know what would actually change about the compound once it becomes the embassy.
7. Haaretz quotes a Palestinian diplomatic source saying Israel is pushing the US administration to release its nascent peace plan. “Based on what Palestinians have been able to learn about the plan so far, the PA will reject it out of hand, enabling both Netanyahu and the U.S. administration to paint the Palestinians as peace rejectionists,” the paper quotes him saying.
- At a conference in London Saturday, Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Authority’s envoy to the UK, denied there had ever been talks anyway. “We never had real negotiations [with Israel], because negotiations can’t take place in such asymmetrical power relations,” he said, according to al Jazeera.
8. Netanyahu is also scheduled to meet with congressional figures on Tuesday after his AIPAC speech. One subject he may bring up is a softened version of an anti-BDS bill introduced on Saturday, after criticism from the ACLU. The legislation now limits punishments and affirms the rights of individuals to boycott whom they please, according to the Baltimore Sun.
9. In The Times of Israel, Cathryn Prince looks at why free speech advocates don’t seem concerned with protecting those defending Israel from being shouted down on campus. “It’s demoralizing, particularly for Jewish students. They hear how Jews control the media, Jews control Congress. So it’s anti-Semitic,” former University of California president John Yudof is quoted saying. “It would be how Nazis in the 1930s talked, or the mayor of Vienna at the time.”