The prime minister’s political purgatory

Is Netanyahu a bull in a China shop, or was there a reason for this week’s crisis over public broadcasting?

PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset
The 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square called for democracy, greater accountability, freedom of the press and freedom of speech, before the Chinese government declared martial law and suppressed the demonstrations with tanks, killing several hundred civilians.
Twenty-eight years later, an Israeli delegation led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu passed through the square amid calls for... what ideals exactly?
Untainted public broadcasting, according to Netanyahu and his closest associates, led by coalition chairman David Bitan. Preventing the advancement of the prime minister’s criminal investigations, according to Netanyahu’s critics.
No matter who is right, never before has the formerly bloodstained square looked so trivial than when it became the backdrop of an Israeli political dispute that Confucius may not have been able to understand and certainly could not have cared less about, had he still been around.
The backdrop in Israel was just as jarring. This was a week in which the Syrians reportedly downed an Israeli drone, there were skirmishes on the border with the Gaza Strip, and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot revealed that Israel has spent the mind-boggling sum of NIS 4.2 billion on preventing infiltrations from Gaza.
Meanwhile, the Knesset completed its winter session by passing legislation that will change the lives of Israelis forever. But they probably did not hear about the bills, because the focus of the press was about whether Netanyahu would initiate elections.
The prime minister also created plenty of important news that went under-reported in his meetings with top Chinese officials and business leaders, advancing relations with a key country in a way that could help Israeli innovation make the world a better place. The Israeli businessmen who accompanied him signed deals worth some NIS 7.3b.
While on past trips abroad Netanyahu could rightfully blame the press for focusing on minutiae and petty disputes and ignoring his accomplishments, this time he cannot deny that he himself started the fight that distracted the reporters accompanying him and the public back home in Israel.
It was Netanyahu who sent Bitan to threaten an early election on live TV last Saturday and announce that an agreement the prime minister reached with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon days earlier would not be honored. Political tensions in Israel were not inflamed by an anti-Netanyahu media outlet but by the prime minister’s official Facebook page.
Since then, the Israeli press has been left to speculate on whether there would be an early election, what would be its outcome if it were held, and whether an alternative government could be formed by opposition leader Isaac Herzog, Kahlon or a Likud minister.
Whether Netanyahu watched this all happening with joy from more than 7,000 kilometers away cannot be known, because he and his staff did not brief reporters accompanying him, much less the media back home. Members of the press who traveled with the prime minister said he did his best to keep his distance from them, and he preceded public comments by saying the political dispute would not be addressed.
The theory that an election was being initiated by Netanyahu in order to halt or postpone his three criminal investigations was damaged by law enforcement officials saying they would proceed regardless of political developments. After all, police did not neglect to advance Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s investigations during past elections.
Netanyahu’s political future became further clouded when Jerusalem Post legal analyst Yonah Jeremy Bob reported this week that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit would insist on the prime minister resigning if Mandelblit indicts him. The report said Mandelblit would likely not indict Netanyahu for something viewed as overly minor, so if there would be an indictment, it would be for a crime that is relatively severe.
Until then, Netanyahu’s associates had been saying that not only would the police recommendation to indict him that is expected as early as next month not faze him, even an actual indictment months later would not remove him from office. The impression given was that Netanyahu would continue to govern until convicted or exonerated in a trial that could take years.
So if the past week’s political tensions had nothing to do with the investigations, that brings us back to the Israeli Broadcasting Corporation. Perhaps Netanyahu really believes it is a reason to initiate an election.
Anything is possible after his admission two months ago that he initiated the last race in order to save the Israel Hayom newspaper, and not the reason he said ahead of the election, which was his inability to trust his coalition partners in the security cabinet.
Netanyahu wrote on Facebook that he was breaking the deal with Kahlon because he met with Israel Broadcasting Authority workers who would be replaced by the IBC, and he was touched by their plight. The Likud’s ads that compared those same workers to Hamas terrorists two years ago made it harder to take the prime minister’s empathy for them at face value, but it could still be the reason.
It could also be that Netanyahu does not want an anti-Netanyahu media outlet to be created. He believes there are plenty of those already, and his experience in his first term when no media outlet supported him scarred him and compelled him to take action to ensure that he would never be in a situation like that again.
While Bitan and others close to the prime minister tried to paint the corporation as “leftist,” it has hired many overtly right-wing journalists, who make that argument tough to sell.
It is more likely that Netanyahu does not like it that the corporation’s CEO, Ehud Koblentz, is a past appointee of his former No. 2 in the Likud, Gideon Sa’ar.
The corporation’s untimely announcement that Sa’ar’s wife, veteran journalist Geula Even, would anchor its nightly news upset Kahlon, who saw the timing as a political jab aimed at Netanyahu.
But Even is seen by her peers as the ultimate objective journalist, who has proven time and time again that she does not let her personal and professional lives interfere with each other. One would hope that this week of political pandemonium could not possibly have ensued over her.
There are those who suggest that Netanyahu acted like a bull in a China shop by causing a political crisis and then leaving for Beijing.
Perhaps he will explain his true reason to the public soon. But he canceled his schedule for Thursday because he did not feel well, so it will have to wait until next week.
Until then, the public will remain in political purgatory, waiting to hear if there will be an election, and if so, why.