* New ballot could buy Netanyahu time on police probe, peace
* Israeli media says threatened to dissolve government
* In dispute with coalition ally on public broadcasting
By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM, March 19 A dispute between Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his finance minister over
broadcast regulation sparked speculation on Sunday that
Netanyahu could seek an election two years ahead of schedule.
A national vote could delay any U.S. peace moves under new
President Donald Trump and also put off Netanyahu's possible
indictment over suspected corruption.
The speculation came after Netanyahu said late on Saturday
that he was abandoning an agreement with Finance Minister Moshe
Kahlon, a key coalition partner, on establishing a new public
broadcasting authority to replace the existing one.
Netanyahu cited concerns over job losses for his abrupt
change of heart.
The prime minister flew to China for a three-day official
visit on Sunday, leaving behind talk of a coalition crisis and
an early election in Israeli newspapers.
The Israeli media quoted Netanyahu as telling ministers from
his Likud party that he would dissolve the government if Kahlon
didn't fall into line. Kahlon heads the Kulanu party, a
centre-right partner in Netanyahu's Likud-led coalition.
Some commentators said Netanyahu hoped a snap election would
postpone a decision, expected within weeks, by the attorney
general on possible criminal charges.
Others speculated that Netanyahu, after a visit by a U.S.
envoy last week, was unsettled by the course the Trump
administration might set in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts
and wanted to delay diplomacy.
Netanyahu, 67, is a suspect in two cases, one involving the
receipt of gifts from businessmen and the other related to
conversations he held with an Israeli newspaper publisher about
limiting competition in the news sector in exchange for more
No charges have yet been brought against Netanyahu, who was
reelected two years ago and has denied wrongdoing.
Israel is not due to hold a general election until November
2019 but many coalition governments have not lasted a full term.
"A decision to call new elections will suspend the
investigations and might even do away with them," commentator
Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
"If he survives (the ballot) he will argue ... the people
have cleared him of any wrongdoing. And then he will form the
same coalition he has grown fed up with today," Barnea said.
Yariv Levin, a Likud cabinet minister, denied any link
between Netanyahu's decision on the broadcasting authority and
the police probes.
Under coalition agreements, Likud has the final word on
communications issues, Levin told Army Radio. Two other Likud
ministers voiced opposition to an early ballot.
In the Maariv newspaper, commentator Ben Caspit said a new
election would buy Netanyahu another six to 12 months to gear up
for an "ultimate deal" from Trump on peace with the Palestinians
and the future of Jewish settlements.
"(Netanyahu) now realises just how misplaced the right
wing's adulation over Donald Trump the Messiah was," Caspit
Trump has rolled back on any quick move of the U.S. embassy
from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city at the heart of the
Israeli-Arab conflict, and has called on Netanyahu to "hold back
on settlements for a bit".
(Editing by Keith Weir)