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Why Netanyahu offended his finance minister

The public rift between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon never really threatened the integrity of the coalition, as none of its members is interested, at least for now, in early elections.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 31, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen  - RTX24S18

Ever since the evening of March 15, the parliamentary coalition in Israel has been in a crisis mood over bitter exchanges between the entourage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon's people. And what happened at the government meeting March 16 did not reconcile this crisis atmosphere, but made it worse. Adding fuel to the fire, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri delivered a warning to the prime minister and the squabbling ministers, saying, “I’m not going to stay in a government that thrives on malfunctioning and on destroying one another. If you don’t all come to your senses, it’s better to hold an election.”

Kahlon, who instigated the crisis with Netanyahu, knew the crisis would not lead to the dissolution of the government and would end shortly. While Deri also knew this, he wanted to situate himself as a central figure in the events.

Not one member of the coalition wants to dissolve it right now and move to an election. On the other hand, everyone in the coalition is preparing for the moment when Netanyahu’s fourth government falls apart and an official election campaign starts, and working on creating platforms for it.

When the squabbling started March 15, the coalition was holding a team-building day. But the day ended with raised voices after Netanyahu, in his evening speech, called on Kahlon to push back the launch of the new public broadcasting corporation, scheduled to replace the dysfunctioning Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA). When Netanyahu spoke, Kahlon had already left the Ramada Hotel in Hadera, where the event was held; his staff briefed him on the speech. Kahlon was shocked. Netanyahu had taken Kahlon by surprise, and he felt the prime minister was making him into the punching bag for the IBA, whose employees are trying to prevent the closing of their workplace, as Netanyahu is made out to be their protector. This angered Kahlon, since he was not part of Netanyahu's initiative to close the IBA in the first place.

That was the precise moment that Kahlon decided not to keep quiet and to teach Netanyahu a lesson in leadership, to get him back in line. Close to midnight, the press had started to report on a crisis between the finance minister and the prime minister. Kahlon let out steam about Netanyahu and was quoted as blaming the prime minister for stealing Kahlon's credit for his success at the Treasury Ministry, “but you [Netanyahu] always disappear when there is trouble. Only control [over the public broadcasting corporation] interests you.”

Kahlon went to battle to put Netanyahu in his place. He knew that Netanyahu would not fire him — and that the prime minister was not interested in an election right now. Thus, Netanyahu can only profit from the turmoil. 

Indeed, the Kahlon-Netanyahu crisis began and ended within 24 hours. The two managed to fight, trade accusations in the press and stop it all before things got out of control. At noon March 16, word had gone out that Netanyahu and Kahlon had decided between themselves that the corporation would start broadcasting on time — on April 30. They also agreed to pass a law on media supervision, which would subject the corporation and other media entities to government supervision by means of a political body.

At the same time as the broadcasting corporation crisis, the media covered another squabble between Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beitenu) and Education Minister Naftali Bennett (HaBayit HaYehudi). The conflict between the two leaders of the right-wing parties, which are on an electoral collision course, started March 15 after Liberman asked Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, the head of the pre-military academy at the West Bank settlement of Eli, to resign following his insulting remarks against women in the Israel Defense Forces. Alongside the demand, Liberman issued an ultimatum to the rabbi that if he does not resign, Liberman would use his authority and put an end to budget support for the rabbi’s office at the academy. 

Levinstein is considered one of the prominent rabbis of religious Zionism. Liberman’s threat, as expected, led to a harsh response from Bennett, the sector’s representative in the government. In a stinging post on his Facebook page, Bennett maintained that Liberman is threatening to close the academy for political reasons and is making a cynical move at the expense of religious Zionism. “It’s more of Yvette’s [Liberman’s] typical babble,” he concluded.

“Bennett is protecting those who would turn Israel into Iran. We will not allow it. In Israel, women are equal to men,” Liberman tweeted in response.

The squeaky Bennett-Liberman axle naturally added to the sense that the government was spinning out of control. The Amona crisis, which has not yet been resolved, added fuel to the fire. The residents of the illegal Amona settlement were evacuated at the end of December by court order. At the time, Netanyahu promised them an alternative settlement location, but this has not been found yet, and Bennett is leading a struggle against Netanyahu on this issue.

But at the end of a day of political battles, when the picture of each member's political considerations becomes clear, we can estimate that Netanyahu’s fourth government, now marking exactly two years since its formation, is not yet about to fall. What we are seeing is merely the promo for the next election, as each one of the actors is marking his territory and laying the groundwork for the election campaign. 

As Bennett appeals with all his might to the religious nationalist sector as their representative, making statements on the issue of Levinstein, the Amona crisis and annexation demands of the settlement town Ma'ale Adumim, Liberman continues to build himself as a pragmatic mainstream rightist. For his part, Kahlon is working to arrive at the next election as a stellar minister of finance, and to do so he needs more time and more achievements. 

And Netanyahu is constantly checking the limits of tolerance of the heads of coalition parties. He estimates that not one of them — Kahlon, Liberman, Bennett and certainly not the ultra-Orthodox — want to tear everything down and go to an election now. Although polls indicate Bennett's party would gain three seats if the election were held today, Netanyahu estimates that Bennett will not allow himself to be the one to break up a right-wing government. 

Paradoxically, this brief crisis — which lasted less than 24 hours — clarified that Netanyahu’s coalition is more stable than it has seemed in recent weeks, when the criminal investigations of the prime minister began. However, we can now see what the next election cycle would look like. 

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