Netanyahu says coalition rift mended, early Israeli vote less likely

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks with Finance Minister Kahlon during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resolved a dispute with his finance minister on Thursday over broadcast regulation, an issue that had put a strain on the governing coalition and fed speculation of an early election.

Critics had accused Netanyahu of using the issue as a pretext for engineering an early national vote that could delay any peace moves under the new U.S. administration and also put off the his possible indictment over suspected corruption.

But coalition partners and members of Netanyahu’s own right-wing Likud party balked at the idea of an early ballot, and brokered talks with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

On March 18, Netanyahu cited concerns over job losses when he scrapped an agreement with Kahlon on setting up a new public broadcasting watchdog on April 30 intended to replace an existing authority widely seen as antiquated and inefficient.

Netanyahu has met Kahlon – leader of the center-right Kulanu party – several times this week over the issue.

Right-wing politicians close to Netanyahu said the prime minister had been concerned that two officials appointed to senior posts in the new watchdog leaned to the left and could spearhead critical coverage of the conservative leader.

On Thursday, Netanyahu and Kahlon agreed a compromise, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

It said the news division of the Israel Broadcasting Authority will be managed separately – an arrangement that could effectively ensure that those two officials would not oversee news coverage.

A panel picked by a judge would appoint managers for the news division, David Bitan, a senior legislator from Netanyahu’s Likud party, said on Israel Radio, and “there will be no political intervention”.

He said the restructured broadcaster, called Kann, would go on air in mid-May, some two weeks after its planned debut.

Israel’s attorney-general is widely expected to decide within weeks whether to indict Netanyahu, who was re-elected two years ago and has denied wrongdoing. Leveling charges during an election campaign could be seen as interfering in the process.

Even if Netanyahu is charged, legal and political analysts say he could go on governing for a year or more since the process of confirming and approving charges can be drawn out.

One of the investigations relates to conversations Netanyahu held with an Israeli newspaper publisher about limiting competition in the news sector in exchange for more positive coverage. The other involves the receipt of gifts from businessmen.

Israel’s next national election is due in November 2019.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)