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Netanyahu’s early election threat overshadows China trip

In this Thursday, March 16, 2017, file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (Amir Cohen / Associated Press)
In this Thursday, March 16, 2017, file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (Amir Cohen / Associated Press)
By Jonathan Ferziger and David Wainer Bloomberg

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threat to dissolve his government for a fourth time is overshadowing a trade trip to China meant to promote deals with some of the country’s biggest corporations.

Netanyahu told ministers from his Likud party on Saturday that if Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon doesn’t agree to scrap a new public broadcaster that’s supposed to go on air next month and keep the current one running, then he’ll dismantle the government, according to two party members who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversation was private. The two officials have argued over the costs of jettisoning the new broadcaster and the prime minister’s right to set communications policy.

Elections midway through the government’s four-year term would come as police gather evidence in two criminal probes into Netanyahu’s conduct that could increase pressure on him to resign should they lead to charges.

Netanyahu is also having a tougher time with the Trump administration than some in Israel foresaw. The sides are now negotiating a deal over West Bank settlement construction that has caught him between governing partners who want him to build more aggressively and the U.S. president, who has told him to hold back.

In remarks before the flight to Beijing, Netanyahu spoke more about the broadcast authority than he did about China, though he didn’t discuss early elections. Economy Minister Eli Cohen, a member of Kahlon’s Kulanu party who accompanied Netanyahu on the four-day trip, said “going to elections over something like this is not the right thing for the state of Israel.”

“It’s a shame that this seems to be distracting people from what we’re doing here this week,” Cohen said. “We have a real opportunity to increase trade with China and that’s what the prime minister should be focusing on.”

Netanyahu has made a point of trying to expand Israel’s trade and diplomatic relations, with a special emphasis on Asia. On Monday, he met with chiefs of 11 large companies, including Alibaba Group Holding, Lenovo Group, Baidu and Dalian Wanda Group. In a speech to a conference of Chinese and Israeli business leaders, he called Israel a “technological global power” that aspires to be “the perfect junior partner” for Chinese investors.

During his trip he’ll also meet with Prime Minister Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping.

The Yediot Ahronoth newspaper reported that the directors of the finance and communications ministries would meet on Monday to try to resolve the crisis. Coalition chairman David Bitan told Army Radio an agreement might be reached even before Netanyahu returns from China later this week.

Senior members of Netanyahu’s coalition have spoken out against new elections, with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz telling Army Radio the government shouldn’t break up over a disagreement about the media. While Kahlon didn’t publicly comment on the possibility of early balloting, he said about the dispute, “Others don’t take responsibility. We take responsibility.”

Netanyahu may be using the spat with Kahlon as a pretext because early elections wouldn’t prevent the old broadcaster from being closed, said Yoaz Hendel, a former aide to the prime minister.

“The fight over the public broadcaster is simply a ruse,” Hendel said. “Netanyahu’s routine is always to surprise his colleagues. He is paranoid – for good reasons, I must say – and he sees the threats, from the promises to settlers he may not keep to the police investigation closing in around him, and so he may think this might be time to catch his rivals unprepared.”

The elections threat may also have been meant to bring rebel ministers in line. Netanyahu accuses Kahlon, a political rival, of violating a coalition agreement giving the prime minister control of communications policy. Netanyahu has also faced criticism from Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, another rival who seeks a more aggressive Israeli settlement policy.

It was Netanyahu himself who originally pressed to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority, only to later say it would be less costly to overhaul it than replace it. Likud allies including Bitan have said the new broadcaster has been stacked with left-wing figures hostile to the government.

Kahlon says the new broadcaster would be cheaper to run. The Finance Ministry also expected to receive 1.7 billion shekels ($468 million) from selling the land on which the old broadcasting authority sits, he has said. Local media reported that opposition leader Isaac Herzog has called on him to leave the Netanyahu government to help form – and possibly lead – an alternative coalition.

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