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The real reason Netanyahu is threatening early elections

Netanyahu is beginning to worry that life under Trump may be much more difficult than under Obama. An election could be his way out

Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shook Israeli politics last weekend by threatening to call for early elections, most political analysts have been scratching their heads, trying to understand this move.

Why should a prime minister with a stable coalition, an economy which is performing well and a supportive American president opt for early elections two and a half years before the end of his term, especially when most polls show him trailing behind the centrist Yesh Atid party, headed by Yair Lapid.

Even Netanyahu’s own supporters find his official reasoning – his concern for the thousand employees of the old broadcasting authority – ridiculous

Aside from a bunch of hardcore loyalists, few believe Netanyahu's own claim that the crisis inspiring his election threat is about the fate of Israel's public broadcasting institution.

In 2014, the previous government, headed by the very same Netanyahu, passed legislation to shut the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and open a new Public Broadcasting Corporation which is scheduled to start emissions on 30 April.

But now Netanyahu says he wants to keep the IBA open and has threatened to fire Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who formed his own party and won 10 seats in the last elections. Sacking Kahlon, who insists on opening the new operation on time, would trigger early elections.

Media intrigue

Even Netanyahu’s own supporters find his official reasoning – his concern for the thousand employees of the old broadcasting authority – ridiculous.

But when he warns that the new broadcasting cooperation would be "leftist", the Israeli prime minister receives more sympathy within his own political camp.

It may seem rather strange to analyse the political affiliation of a news outlet before it has even aired, but this is the political atmosphere which now reigns in Israel.

Trump's successful election campaign only confirmed Netanyahu's conviction that attacking the media works

Netanyahu led vicious campaigns against the media long before Donald Trump appeared on the scene. Yet Trump's successful election campaign only confirmed Netanyahu's conviction that he is on the right track. He set out to make independent media his main rival.  

Netanyahu is moving on two fronts. On the one hand, he regularly attacks and denigrates independent news outlets as well as specific journalists (he has a libel suit against a journalist who wrote a post on Facebook deriding him and his wife, Sara), while trying to limit their circulation and influence. On the other, he tries to widen his control over a variety of newspapers, news sites and TV stations.

Israel's most circulated newspaper is Israel, Hayom (Israel Now) is owned by Netanyahu's personal friend, the American billionaire Sheldon Edelson. Israel's most popular news site, Walla, is owned by another personal friend of Netanyahu. So it seems only natural that he would want to fully control Israel's national television and radio.

Yet the new Public Broadcasting Cooperation barely explains Netanyahu's decision to call Kahlon into this political duel. The current IBA enjoys a viewership rating of four points average. The new one is not expected to get more. With all its symbolic importance, it is not worth losing an election over.

The real motivation

A more plausible explanation for his call for an election are the three criminal investigations in which Netanyahu is involved now.

One concerns expensive gifts that he and his wife received over the years from "friends" in the United States and Australia. The second regards mafia-like talks he led with the owner of Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest private news group, in which they were both recorded discussing how Netanyahu could help Yediot in return for the group’s positive coverage of the prime minister.

It would certainly be better timing to run for election before an indictment against Netanyahu is filed to court

The third may be the most sensitive one, as it concerns a dubious multi-billion dollar deal to purchase German submarines and war ships in which some of Netanyahu's closest aides were involved. Yet this investigation is now at its early stages and Netanyahu himself has not been officially named as a suspect.

According to most sources, over the next few weeks, the police are expected to recommend Netanyahu’s indictment for unlawfully receiving gifts worth a few hundred thousand dollars and maybe even for giving some "services" in return. This is just the first step, as it may take months until the general prosecutor would adopt this recommendation and indict Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has already declared that, even if he is indicted, he will not step down from office as the Israeli law does not require him to do so. But it would certainly be better timing to run for election before an indictment is filed to court.

In a possible early election, Netanyahu could portray himself in one of the roles he always prefers – the nationalist leader, representing the under-privileged, pursued by the old judicial and media elites.

Trump again provides a helpful model: as Netanyahu skillfully pictured the not-yet-existent Public Broadcasting Corporation as part of this elite, an election called on its fault may well play into his hands.

Fewer friends to lean on

Yet maybe a fuller explanation should be found elsewhere. The current political crisis began last week, just a few days after Trump's personal envoy, Jason Greenblatt, visited Israel and the West Bank, meeting with Netanyahu and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Haaretz and other Israeli news outlets have reported that Greenblat demanded that Netanyahu freeze all building outside the "settlement blocks" in the West Bank and to limit construction inside the same "blocks" and even in East Jerusalem.

With Trump in power, Netanyahu’s room for manoeuvre in American politics has reduced significantly

Netanyahu has faced similar American demands in the past. He was even forced to halt all Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank during the first months of President Barack Obama’s administration.

Yet this time, it is different: the settlement freeze when Obama was in office came when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. So Netanyahu repeatedly used his Republican friends in Congress for leverage.

With Trump in power, Netanyahu’s room for manoeuvre in American politics has reduced significantly. The Republicans in Congress are busy with the new and unexpected – to put it mildly – president. The Democrats, who only a decade ago were all aligned with Israel, have no appetite to help Netanyahu personally or even Israel generally. Netanyahu has no option but to obey to Trump's wishes.

True, nobody really knows what Trump’s wishes are for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if he has any at all. But the first signs are much less positive than Netanyahu or the Israeli right-wing expected. And it is not only the "restraint" in the settlements now discussed between Netanyahu and Trump's envoys.

Greenblatt's visit came a few days after Trump and Abbas had a first telephone conversation at the end of which Abbas was invited to the White House. Trump repeated his promise to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians and even the possibility of a peace conference was mentioned.      

Heading off the demons

If Trump actually heads in this direction, Netanyahu will find himself in dire straits. He already has a hard time with his right-wing partners in the Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett and even within his own Likud party.

An invitation to a Trump peace conference, at which Netanyahu would probably have to accept - at least formally - the idea of a Palestinian state and a certain withdrawal in the West Bank, will deal a death blow to his government.

Bennett pushed the "normalisation/expropriation" law, allowing for the takeover of private Palestinian lands in the West Bank, despite open opposition by Netanyahu who warned that it could drag Israel into the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Bennett was seen more and more as the actual prime minister of a government formally headed by Netanyahu.

In such political circumstances, it is easy to understand why Netanyahu preferred to spend the last few weeks in visits overseas - Russia, Australia and now China. Bennett and the more radical elements in the Likud party will almost definitely reject any freeze in the settlements.

An invitation to a peace conference, at which Netanyahu would probably have to accept - at least formally - the idea of a Palestinian state and a certain withdrawal in the West Bank, will deal a death blow to his government.

The only way out

Early elections could spare Netanyahu this menacing scenario. They could be a perfect excuse to shove off any future American pressure concerning settlements, let alone a peace conference.

The new government would not be formed before the beginning of 2018 and, by then, Trump will have changed his mind or be busy with more worrying troubles. If this is how Netanyahu interprets reality, an election held before this rift with Trump becomes obvious and before Netanyahu is pushed into what the right-wing sees as concessions, is certainly a better option.

The polls now are mixed. Netanyahu is not certain that his right-wing block will have a majority, certainly if Kahlon is pushed out in a humiliating manner. But Netanyahu seems ready to take the risk and Israel may go to its fifth election campaign in 11 years.

Israel may be strong militarily and economically, but politically it is living in a constant crisis. Just another price for the continuation of the occupation.

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for an inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the news department at Haaretz, and now an independent journalist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 16, 2017. (AFP)