I’ve been getting lots of questions in the past couple of weeks about the political crisis threatening the demise of Israel’s ruling coalition and what it’s about, and whether today’s apparent deal means that it is over. So here is your guide to the strange machinations currently plaguing the Israeli government that has had everyone talking about elections.
What are the coalition members fighting about?
The fight is between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and it is ostensibly over Kan, the new public broadcasting corporation set to launch on April 30 and replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Kan was created in 2014 because the IBA, which collected a mandatory television tax from all Israeli households and had become so bloated and complacent that nobody even knew the precise numbers of people it employed, was seen as beyond repair or reform. In addition, the IBA’s board and director general were appointed by the government rather than by any independent means, which led to all sorts of conflicts of interest. It also didn’t hurt that the Netanyahu-led government at the time felt that the IBA had a leftwing bias characteristic of many public sector organizations – one ad supporting the broadcasting reforms showed IBA employees in a support group with Hamas terrorists complaining about the Netanyahu government that opposes them – and so shuttering the unpopular IBA entirely was an easy political win. But as the date for Kan’s opening was repeatedly pushed back amid concerns for the welfare of the IBA’s employees, there were other whisperings that Netanyahu was worried that the new public broadcasting operation would indeed be independent as envisioned and immune to his control, and thus he was looking for an excuse to sink it.
This background brings us to two weeks ago, when Netanyahu gave a speech in which he described Kan employees as leftists and denounced the fact that they would have no public supervision, and called on Kahlon to delay Kan’s opening by another six months. Given that Kahlon has inherited this issue from the last government and that Kan was created at Netanyahu’s own behest, he did not react well, and Netanyahu backed down from his postponement demand and replaced it with a request for a new law creating a supervisory body for Kan. Less than 48 hours later, Netanyahu reversed himself again and said that Kan had to be merged into IBA – effectively killing it – or that new elections would be held. This then evolved into a more limited demand that the chairman and director-general of Kan be replaced with Netanyahu appointees, and then it moved back again to the more maximalist position of Kan being shuttered entirely. Netanyahu and Kahlon have been negotiating between themselves in an effort to put all of this to rest, and this morning there are reports that Netanyahu and Kahlon have agreed to a deal in which yet another broadcasting corporation will be established alongside Kan to deal with news and current affairs. But this is not the first time that an agreement has been reported that has then been scuttled, and there is still the issue of whether Kan will go on air one month from today, with conflicting reports about that. Until new legislation is written and passes the Knesset, nobody can assume that this affair has been concluded.
Wow – so IBA must have enormous ratings and tremendous influence, making Kan’s direction a real potential threat to the prime minister, right?
Nope. IBA is like a less-watched and less prestigious PBS, despite the fact that for decades it ran the only channel in Israel. As noted above, it is also unpopular due to the mandatory tax levied to run it and the corruption and waste endemic to its operation. Its influence is small despite having some top-notch journalists and broadcasters working for it, and Kan is not expected to do a whole lot better.
Huh. So if Netanyahu was threatening elections over what seems like a completely insignificant issue, he must have the unwavering support of his coalition members on this?
Nope. Despite public backing from some of his more sycophantic Likud supporters, nearly every MK in the coalition thinks that elections would be a self-defeating move that does them no good. Kahlon is obviously opposed, the Haredi parties explicitly warned earlier this week against new elections, Avigdor Lieberman does not want to risk losing his position as defense minister, and Naftali Bennett is not quite ready to take on Netanyahu as leader of the rightwing bloc. There is such opposition to Netanyahu’s elections threat within Likud that there have been reports of plans to depose Netanyahu and form an alternative coalition led by a different Likud minister should the prime minister call elections now. I wrote five months ago that nobody in the government wanted to bring it down because the polls showed that – with the exception of Bennett and Bayit Yehudi – they would all be in worse positions and that making any moves would be incredibly risky, and that applies even more today.
I don’t get it. Why has this been happening?
I confess that for the first time in years with regard to Israeli politics, I am at a loss. If you think it is insane that Netanyahu is willing to risk his own prime ministership, the dominance of rightwing governments, Likud’s share of the Knesset, and any goodwill he has built up among his coalition partners over such a marginal issue in the firmament of Israeli politics, then you are not alone. Multiple Israeli columnists have literally questioned Netanyahu’s sanity in writing since this all blew up two weeks ago. But not being in the business of diagnosing the prime minister’s mental health from afar, here are my three best guesses in no particular order as to what has actually been going on.
Netanyahu actually sees Kan as a real threat. Netanyahu has an obsession with the media and how it covers him that is Trumpian, and it extends to outlets big and small. His involvement with Yisrael Hayom – colloquially known as the Bibiton – was infamous even before the tapes came to light of him bartering with Yediot Ahronot publisher Noni Mozes for better coverage in Yediot in return for depressing Yisrael Hayom’s circulation. He only gave up the Communications Ministry portfolio in February after the High Court ordered him to justify retaining it in light of the massive conflicts of interest revealed by the Mozes deal, and even then he only gave it up on an interim basis. That Netanyahu would not have control over Kan’s direction because of its independent structure seemed to only just hit him, and Netanyahu genuinely has a media bugaboo like no other Israeli politician. When his bitter Likud rival Gidon Sa’ar’s wife Geula Even-Sa’ar was named as lead anchor for Kan one week into the manufactured crisis with Kahlon, that probably drove him even further over the edge and convinced him that this was all a plot designed to chip away at him and ultimately bring him down. None of this seems rational to the outside world, but as Herman Melville so aptly illustrated in Moby Dick, single-minded obsession can crowd out everything else.
This is the best way to circumvent the four investigations into Netanyahu’s actions. Netanyahu right now is under active investigation by the police on four different fronts, and the near-universal assumption among Israel’s political and journalistic classes is that he will be indicted as a result of one of these cases, and possibly multiple ones. If Netanyahu calls elections now, he thinks these cases will halt since it will appear improper to have the legal system interfere with electoral politics – a topic that we in the U.S. now understand intimately well in light of the controversy over the FBI’s behavior surrounding investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email server and Donald Trump’s Russia ties during the campaign – and that if he manages to win another term as prime minister, they will permanently disappear since the will of the voters will trump any past misdeeds. Under this theory, Netanyahu was just grasping for the closest excuse – no matter how imperfect or implausible – to hold elections as the investigations have heated up, and this is what presented itself.
This is all a feint to distract from the real issue, which is Trump. There is no need to dwell on the obvious reality that Netanyahu is stuck between the rock of his unyielding rightwing coalition and the hard place of a President Trump who is moving full steam ahead on Israeli-Palestinian peace and doesn’t seem to like what he is hearing from the Israeli side. After being unable to come to an agreement with Netanyahu’s negotiating team on the scope of acceptable Israeli settlement activity, Jason Greenblatt reportedly now believes that Netanyahu could form a unity government with the Zionist Union in order to advance negotiations and thinks that Netanyahu’s protestations that he is politically hemmed in by his coalition are a mere excuse. Aryeh Deri yesterday called for Yitzhak Herzog to be brought into the government, and Kahlon would not stand in the way were it to happen, so there may soon be internal pressure for Netanyahu to make a move aside from what he is getting from the White House. It is easier for Netanyahu to start from scratch with new elections and be in a better bargaining position with a weaker Zionist Union than to jettison Bayit Yehudi and deal with Herzog’s 24 seats in the current Knesset, and it is also easier for Netanyahu politically to call new elections based on the broadcasting corporation pretext than to openly betray his rightwing partners before a vote takes place. If Netanyahu thinks that the only way out of his dilemma with the new administration is a new government, this is a plausible way for him to get there.
What Netanyahu does next will tell us a lot. If today’s deal holds and Netanyahu is able to gain new influence over the new news division by stacking it with IBA employees who are loyal to him, then it means control over state broadcasting is (implausibly) the real issue. If he keeps on changing the terms of what would be an acceptable resolution and the deal falls apart over nitpicky details, then it means he is using the broadcasting issue as a way to actually get to elections, and then the unknowable question will still be why it is that he wants them. As to whether today’s deal is actually the end of this or not, your guess is as good as mine, but least you now have a scorecard with which to follow the action.