Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night retracted last week’s agreement with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to establish the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation, throwing his coalition back into crisis. Hebrew media meanwhile reported that Netanyahu threatened to dissolve the government if Kahlon does not agree to shut down the IBC before it is officially launched on April 30.
“I changed my mind after a meeting I had yesterday with the employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page on Saturday. “At the meeting I heard heart-rending stories about dedicated and experienced employees who are being sent home because of the [replacement Israel Broadcasting] Corporation.”
Netanyahu’s retraction came after a week of inter-coalition tensions, as Kulanu chairman Kahlon sparred with the prime minister about a proposal for another six-month postponement of the IBC launch. The two men later agreed to support its establishment as scheduled.
Netanyahu has fought against the IBC, which would replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority and operate under less government control.
Writing on Facebook to explain his change of heart, the prime minister said he did not want to send some 1,000 IBA employees home without jobs. Claiming that the cost of operating the IBA is tens of millions of shekels less than it would be with the IBC, he asked, “So why should there be a Corporation?” Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog said on Twitter that he plans to unseat the government and supports a vote of no-confidence. Meanwhile, Kahlon spoke with Herzog about Kulanu, with its 10 MKs, leaving the coalition and introducing a motion of no-confidence, thereby triggering an election.
Some opposition lawmakers accused the prime minister of deliberately seeking such an action, to distract from his ongoing criminal investigation.
“We must not confuse the public,” Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit said. [Netanyahu] wants the crisis so as not to be investigated. It is not the establishment of the Corporation but an early election.”
Before the coalition was thrown into a tailspin on Saturday, the crisis appeared resolved by Thursday’s agreement between Kahlon and Netanyahu to establish the IBC on April 30 as legislated.
In exchange, Kahlon agreed to a support a government bill to create a unified state regulatory body for news broadcasting.
The establishment of government control over the broadcaster has been criticized as a threat to press freedoms.
“There is no agreement with Kahlon, the Broadcasting Corporation will not be established,” MK David Bitan said Saturday on Channel 2’s Meet the Press. “The Likud leads the government and the coalition with 30 seats. They [Kulanu] cannot come to us all the time with demands and impose their agenda on us, without respecting our views.”
Speaking earlier in the day in Haifa, Bitan acknowledged the coalition crisis. “There is a good chance we will go to an election,” he said. “Bayit Yehudi and Kulanu say that ‘the government depends on our support,’ but enough is enough. If the Likud and the prime minister get fed up, [Netanyahu] will dismantle everything and go to the polls.”
On Thursday, the crisis took an ugly turn when, in responding to a question by Kahlon as to why Netanyahu requested a six-month delay of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation, the prime minister said his “Mizrahi gene was activated.” The statement, using the Hebrew word for “Eastern” or “Oriental,” appeared to play off of degrading stereotypes of Jews of Middle Eastern descent.
After a flood of condemnation from opposition and some coalition MKs, Netanyahu apologized on Friday for the charged comment, writing on Twitter, “I apologize for my remarks yesterday. I had no intention to offend anyone. I am connected with all my heart to every group in Israel and I cherish their tremendous contribution to the tradition of our people and building our nation.”
Amid the shake-up last week, Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri threatened to pull out of the government if these kinds of confrontations do not end.
“I do not intend to stay in a cabinet that performs as such, where everyone tries ‘to take out one another,’” he said, “If people are not willing to come to their senses, we better go to an election.”