Last Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu dropped a political bombshell which made a vote of no-confidence likely in the near future, with the prospect of new elections later this year. The issue over which this is being fought seems arcane to foreign observers, but is nonetheless significant.
Like many countries, such as Canada and Great Britain, Israel has a government-supported broadcast service. The present incarnation is the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), which is in effect state-run radio and television. The institution dates back to the beginning of Israeli statehood, and has therefore always been dominated by the Israeli Left. Even after the first Likud victory in 1976, civil service regulations and a degree of cronyism in the broadcast industry have conspired to keep it so.
But the rise of privately run radio stations in Israel serving various niche markets, much like the American model, has made what once seemed a necessity increasingly less so. Netanyahu has a long record of conflict with the IBA over coverage of various issues, and he has in the past suggested that complete privatization would be a better option.
In 2014, a law was passed by the Knesset which wound up the IBA and replaced it with a new agency, the Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), which would be much looser with far less government oversight — and far less opportunity for politicians to interfere in the hiring and firing of senior staff. The bill was passed despite Bibi’s opposition (unlike the American system, the Israeli prime minister has no veto power). However, there has been a great deal of foot-dragging in the implementation, and until now the IBA has remained in operation under the old rules.
In February 2017, as a result of the coalition agreement that brought the current Israeli government into existence, a bill was passed setting the date for the implementation of the new IBC for April 30, 2017. This was by agreement with finance minister and head of the new centrist Kulanu Party Moshe Kachlon, whose ten Knesset seats thus joined the coalition.
On Friday, Bibi suddenly canceled that agreement.
In doing so, he cited two alleged concerns. First, he now claims that the Finance Ministry’s projections are wrong and that maintaining the current IBA will be cheaper by “millions of sheqalim.” Second, he is now concerned that the roughly 1,000 employees of the IBA will lose their salaries on the eve of Passover (which he knew would happen back in February).
By all accounts, Kachlon raged at Bibi’s sudden shift (which Bibi now insists he didn’t actually make), and he is said to be in contact with Yitzchak Herzog — whose Machane Tziyoni party heads the opposition in the Knesset — about a vote of no-confidence.
Such a vote will bring down the government, and could precipitate new elections. Indeed, Netanyahu has anticipated this. In a meeting of senior Likud leaders held on Saturday, he declared his willingness to hold new elections if such a vote is held and it goes against the government.
The point, as Health Minister Ya’aqov Litzman of Yahaduth haTorah noted on being told of the events, is that all of this was unnecessary.
The law had been passed, the budget created, and despite the protests by IBA employees who are not assured of being rehired by the new corporation, everyone was reconciled to the new arrangement. Ordinarily, prime ministers do not deliberately foment their own cabinet crises. All of this has fueled a great deal of speculation in the Israeli media concerning Netanyahu’s motivations.
As I have reported previously on this site, Netanyahu is currently embroiled in three different investigations alleging various degrees of corruption. He made a billion-dollar submarine deal with a German firm which just happened to be represented by Netanyahu’s personal attorney, and the deal was pushed through despite the objections of senior personnel in the Defense Ministry. Captured on tape, Netanyahu appears to have made an agreement with newspaper magnate Arnon “Noni” Mozes to pass a bill which would have the effect of suppressing the main competitor of Mozes’ paper, the Sheldon Adelson-owned Yisrael Hayom, in exchange for favorable coverage in Mozes’ Yedi’oth Acharonoth. The Netanyahus are also accused of accepting millions of sheqalim in expensive gifts from various wealthy donors seeking to buy influence.
The Israeli police have recently indicated that they are on the verge of wrapping up the investigation — and a recommendation of indictment seems likely in the latter two affairs.
It has been suggested that the ongoing investigations has caused Netanyahu’s sudden uptick in travel abroad, most recently to China. Aside from cementing Israeli foreign relations and trade contacts (a function usually left to the foreign minister, but Netanyahu has arrogated that portfolio to himself), being out of the country makes him unavailable for follow-up interrogations by investigators.
Recent polls suggest that, absent an actual indictment, Likud would still do well in an election — but the fact is that the election would be close. His chief rival in these polls is not Herzog — whose left-of-center party would likely fare worse, continuing its decline — but the relatively new centrist parties represented by Ya’ir Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Kachlon’s Kulanu. They might be able to attract enough votes between them to enable them to form a coalition with some smaller parties to rival the right-of-center government led by Likud.
Herzog himself, aware of the decline in his party’s strength, is said to favor reshuffling the current Knesset in search of an alternate coalition rather than new elections, in which he’d be likely to lose one or more seats.
What makes all of this uncertainty even more of a game of political “chicken” is the looming danger in the north, as the Syrian civil war winds down. The chief of staff of the IDF has discussed the apparent preparations for a new war by Hezbollah, marked by recent attempts to transfer advanced Russian weaponry to Hezbollah that have been interdicted by Israeli airstrikes. The airstrikes prompted the Syrians to launch anti-aircraft missiles at the Israeli jets — one of these missiles was downed by Israel’s new “Arrow” anti-missile system. Though Syrian sources claimed to have shot down one of the Israeli jets, the IAF reported no losses in the raids. Syria has protested in the UN that the strikes violated its sovereignty, and this has prompted a diplomatic row with Syria’s weapons supplier, Russia.
It looks as though there may be a record hot summer in Israel.