Compared to the incredible emotional roller-coaster that the American presidential election has become in recent weeks (it’s hard not to see the contrast between the Third World-like adulation of Obama four years ago and the wild mood swings of today), the snap elections that the Israeli Prime Minister declared this Tuesday look like a small change. Benjamin Netanyahu holds an undisputed lead; he is viewed as a most suitable candidate for the top executive post; the opposition is plagued by discord and the potential rivals for the leadership of the Israeli Right have their own problems. Almost two-thirds of respondents told pollsters they fully expect the new governing coalition to be exactly the same as before.
Nevertheless, from now until the end of January (right now, elections are planned for two days after the Presidential inauguration in Washington) things can still happen. First of all, for all his political savvy and rhetorical skills, Netanyahu is a world-class specialist in squandering his initial advantage. He started his previous campaign in 2008 as leader of a surging opposition with more than 30 mandates in the polls, then proceeded to gradually lose this advantage till on election day Kadima under Tzipi Livni finished first, forcing Netanyahu to create the only workable coalition with his “natural partners” on the Right and ultra-Orthodox parties. Were it not for the amazing elasticity of the then-leader of the Israeli Labor party Ehud Barak’s principles, Netanyahu would have started his second term as a Prime Minister fully dependent on ideological hardliners and religious shakedown artists.
It is also important to remember that the Israeli political structure encourages not concentration, but dissipation. While the proportional representation system gives various minority groups a voice in parliament and a stake in the system, instead of forcing them onto the streets, it also promotes narrow interests and political egotism. Many American supporters of Israel can be befuddled by this, but the fact is that, while fully accepting that Netanyahu is the one and only desirable leader, the parties of the Right are going to do what they can in the coming months in order to chip as many votes as possible from the Prime Minister’s party, because they want to return to a new coalition with stronger bargaining positions.
And then, of course, there’s Netanyahu’s own record. Unlike in the nineties, when his “American” skills as a communicator were ridiculed by the opposition and the hateful press as something contrary to the plain-speaking Israeli spirit, this time the increasingly sophisticated Israeli public has learned to appreciate the ability of its Prime Minister to command the attention of the only other crowd that matters – the American lawmakers and the people they represent. Nevertheless, the rhetorical Netanyahu – the determined and principled defender of the national interests of the Jewish people – is not the same as Netanyahu the politician. To paraphrase the traditional Israeli accusation against Palestinians, Netanyahu speaks in English, but acts quite differently in Hebrew.
Since returning to office in the beginning of 2009, Netanyahu gave Israel four years of stability and protected it from the worst effects of the global economic downturn. Yet time and again he has alienated his base – by supporting Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s policy of demolishing settler outposts, by not acting decisively against rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip (despite explicit promises to the contrary), by dragging his feet on implementing the recommendations of the “Levy Report”, by blocking much-needed judicial reform and avoiding the problem of illegal infiltration from Africa until it began to explode. While many on the Right accept today that Netanyahu’s agreement to a temporary construction freeze in Judea and Samaria (and undeclared, but nonetheless real freeze in Jerusalem) was in retrospect a clever move that disarmed Washington and exposed the falsity of Palestinian “peace intentions”, they are still smarting from the ease with which he discarded his solemn promise to support the settlers and blame the freeze for the spike in housing prices.
During the social unrest of the previous summer, Netanyahu went astray even from the principles he holds most dear – those of low taxes and free markets. Instead of using the momentum to aggressively act against cartels and trade unions who, often acting in tandem, hurt competition and cause price rises, he embarked on a costly and counterproductive path of government handouts which disproportionately benefit the less productive elements of the Israeli society. Coupled with an increasingly gloomy export outlook, this policy of economic appeasement led to the twin folly of raising taxes and cutting spending during a crisis – without dealing with the necessity of reviewing and cutting the defense budget. Today, Netanyahu is forced to admit that, if he prevails, his first “gift” to the electorate will be an almost unpalatable new budget for 2013.
In his recent speech at the UN, the Prime Minister has finally and publicly set a time limit for Israeli patience with Western inaction with regard to the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu goes to the polls carrying a heavy burden – he expects Israelis to re-elect him in spite of the real possibility that in his third term as a Prime Minister, he will preside over a recession and maybe a war. This is not a recipe for an easy victory.