Why Netanyahu is threatening to dissolve the government over a TV station
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Why Netanyahu is threatening to dissolve the government over a TV station

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, gestures while speaking to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Feb. 19, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi/Pool)

TEL AVIV (JTA) – What is “Bibi” up to?

That was the question many in Israel were asking Sunday morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly threatened to bring down his own government to cancel reforms to state media. According to Hebrew reports, Netanyahu told ministers on Saturday that unless the creation of a new government-funded broadcaster is aborted, “we’ll go to elections.”

Netanyahu ignored questions about the reported comment as he boarded a plane for a diplomatic visit to China on Saturday evening, and his office declined JTA’s request for comment.

Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon have publicly clashed for months over the planned launch of the new broadcaster, which was supposed to be more politically independent than the current one. After supporting the 2014 legislation to create the Israel Broadcasting Corp., or Kan, Netanyahu led efforts to bury it. Kahlon has insisted that Kan move forward.

On Thursday, hours after Kahlon announced a public break with his longtime ally Netanyahu over the conflict, the two Likud party ministers reached a compromise that would have seen Kan launch on April 30. Netanyahu would have agreed to drop his opposition in exchange for Kahlon’s support for legislation that would give the government oversight of all television and radio stations in the country.

But in a Facebook post Saturday, Netanyahu said he had “changed his mind,” leaving observers to puzzle over why the prime minster, a master of political survival, would risk his perfectly good right-wing government over the reforms.

These are some theories being discussed in Israel.

Netanyahu is heartbroken.

On Facebook, Netanyahu attributed his about-face to the “heartbreaking stories” he heard when he met Friday with employees of the current broadcaster, the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Some 1,000 employees were to lose their jobs when it closed, and many have been protesting.

Netanyahu also cited estimates that it would be cheaper to fix the existing broadcaster than to start the new one.

“So what do we need the [new] corporation for?” he asked.

But Finance Ministry statistics contradicted Netanyahu’s price estimates. And few Israelis believed that he suddenly developed a soft spot for broadcasting authority employees. After all, he had criticized them previously as left wing and supportive of terrorism.

On Thursday, Finance Ministry sources told the Hebrew media, “Netanyahu seems to have forgotten who called them Hamas members and legislated a law limiting their absorption into the [new] broadcaster.”

He fears the wrath of Kan.

Both critics and allies have suggested that Netanyahu opposes the new broadcaster because he fears it will turn against him. David Bitan, the chairman of the ruling coalition, said in November that Kan had already been “hijacked by people whose agenda is leftist and anti-government.”

The broadcaster has already been staffed and said it was ready to go on air at the start of this year.

In August, Netanyahu himself reportedly asked TV and radio employees of the Israel Broadcasting Corp. a rhetorical question: “What if everyone in the [new] corporation were from [the left-wing veterans’ group] Breaking the Silence?”

But some commentators have argued that Netanyahu’s alleged desire to control coverage cannot explain his threat to call new elections because he could not really expect any future government to help him quash Kan either.

“First of all, let’s make clear that in any case, the [new] corporation will not shut down,” Yossi Verter wrote Sunday in Haaretz. “With or without elections, it will launch television, radio and digital broadcasting on April 30, and the Israel Broadcasting Authority will cease to exist.”

He is trying to avoid being indicted.

Police have questioned Netanyahu four times as part of two corruption investigations. Although Netanyahu has said repeatedly of the investigations, “There will be nothing because there is nothing,” some have speculated that he may want an excuse to call new elections to prevent the police from recommending an indictment against him — something they would customarily refrain from doing until after the polls close.

Political analysts on Israel’s Channel 2 TV news suggested that the investigations could be a motivating factor for the prime minister. But Netanyahu must know that after the elections, there would be nothing preventing the wheels of justice from moving forward — and all the more easily if he were no longer the prime minister.

He wants to bring his coalition to heel.

Netanyahu’s coalition has looked increasingly unruly of late. In addition to the falling-out between Netanyahu and Kahlon, Knesset member Yehuda Glick on Thursday posted a 700-word treatise on Facebook despairing at what he said was a culture of fear in his Likud party.

Earlier in the week, Education Minister Naftali Bennet and other members of the government publicly sparred with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman over his threat to cut state funding for a pre-army military academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli if the controversial rabbi who heads it did not step down. The week before that, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Knesset member Avi Dichter both said they would run for prime minister once Netanyahu was out of the picture.

Those are just a few examples. Many interpreted Netanyahu’s threat to call elections as a bid to restore order. On Sunday, supporters and critics differed only on how likely he was to succeed.

In Israel Hayom, Mati Tuchfeld credited the prime minister’s leadership under challenging conditions.

“It’s not just the broadcaster and it’s not just Kahlon,” he wrote. “It’s also 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 Eli sent the prime minister down a dead end.”

On the other hand, Nahun Barnea concluded in Yediot Acharanot that Netanyahu was doomed to “self-destruct” in his fourth term in office, much like his former British counterparts, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

His wife and son told him to.

Finally, some blamed the woman Israelis love to hate, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara. Sima Kadmon wrote in Yediot that Sara Netanyahu demanded her husband take action because of her dislike for certain journalists hired by Kan.

“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,” Kadmon wrote. “Ladies and gentlemen, wake up. This is your prime minister.”