Early Israeli Elections Are All About Iran
If there are to be no more surprises (and G-d knows Israeli politics are full of them), in the beginning of the next week Prime Minister Netanyahu will formally announce the date of the new parliamentary elections in Israel. Despite the fact that his coalition was stable and the opposition in disarray, and despite the public displeasure with early elections and his own promises “to serve a full term and then some”, Netanyahu appears determined to cut the life of his government short and to seek a renewed mandate from the people.
The explanation given by sources close to Prime Minister, that the decision to “call it quits” is linked to Israel’s Supreme Court ruling invalidating “Tal’s Law”, which granted yeshiva students an exemption from military service, simply does not hold water. The issue does provoke strong feelings, and a solution has to be found but with the Knesset in abeyance until the elections, the status quo will survive until the new parliament deals with it. Netanyahu promised to have the new law force haredim to share the burden of the military and national service that most other Israelis take part in. Populist slogans notwithstanding, it is common knowledge (amplified by the recent report of the State Comptroller), that the army is simply not ready to accommodate the special religious and family needs of the thousands of haredi recruits, nor to absorb them in any meaningful capacity without additional budgetary measures. The simple and overlooked truth is that while the percentage of Israelis who serve has indeed dropped in recent years, the numbers draftees is growing each year – simply because the population has grown. Since the army hasn’t been budgeting new tank and infantry brigades, it has quite enough human resources as it is.
Another possible explanation is the economy. Since in the wake of last year’s protests Netanyahu has deviated from his ideological commitment to lower direct taxes, the inevitable consequence has been slower growth rates. Unemployment has jumped, both because of the new calculating methods used by the government and the real drop in demand for new labor. The “social” handouts given by the government in the form of generous collective bargaining agreements with the unions, and tax rebates to the middle class, together with the projected drop in the tax revenue, has created a budget shortfall which will demand cuts of up to $4 billion dollars in 2013. Instead of crashing the coalition on the rocks of the budget discussions, causing instability and uncertainty in domestic and international markets, Netanyahu (so the logic goes) prefers to destroy and rebuild his coalition and start fresh.
Yet, no Israeli government to this date has fallen because of the budget. Such are the peculiarities of the Israeli democracy, that the members of Knesset are virtually powerless to substantially alter the budget proposal after it has been sent down by the treasury. Politicians know their impotency too well to make bold but fruitless gestures by voting against their own coalition. Instead, they try to wrangle out some concessions to the interests they represent. While the budget talks would not have been smooth, Netanyahu and his government would have survived.
One more reason given by political observers is the desire of the Prime Minister to seize the moment while the opposition is not ready. Polls show that not only will Likud win more seats but the left as a block will not be able to detach enough votes from the right to achieve blocking power in the new Knesset. The time between now and the forthcoming elections will most likely only dampen the appeal of all three leaders of the opposing forces. Shaul Mofaz’ victory in Kadima, followed by the departure of Tzipi Livni left the party of Ariel Sharon with no credible perspective among center-left voters in Israel. Yair Lapid and his newly announced “There’s a Future” party peaked in popularity several months ago and the dynamic new leader of the Labor party, Shelly Yakhimovich may very well stumble in opposition, given enough time.
Another factor which can explain Netanyahu’s resolve to submit to the people’s judgment sooner rather than later is, of course, the presidential contest in America. Many Israelis suspect that if re-elected, Barack Obama will come after Netanyahu to repay him for all the trouble the Israeli leader has caused. There will be public humiliations, diplomatic ambushes, even maybe an American peace initiative. Polls show that the plurality of Israelis still does not consider Obama “pro-Israel”. What George H.W. Bush did to Yitzhak Shamir and Bill Clinton did to Netanyahu back in the 90-s, Obama will be able to do to Netanyahu again, goes the argument. Therefore Netanyahu wishes to preempt the conflict by renewing and strengthening his mandate.
There are several flaws in this logic. During the first year and a half, the Obama administration didn’t give much credit to the fact that Netanyahu and his coalition had just won the elections, and tried to force the Israeli Prime Minister either to alter his policies dramatically by betraying his voters’ trust, or to adjust the composition of his government in accordance with Washington’s wishes. They failed in both, and on the way granted Netanyahu an unthinkable victory. However compromising he was at home, the majority of Israelis rallied around their elected leader against the American president they didn’t know and learned not to trust.
Together with economic stability and Netanyahu’s performance in negotiation with Obama -Netanyahu has developed a smashing lead against any and all potential contenders for the top job in Israeli politics. According to the last “Haaretz” poll, 48 percent believe Netanyahu is the most suitable candidate to lead the nation, while Yakhimovitch comes in second with 15 percent.
Netanyahu is an expert on American politics and he knows that the outcome of the Obama-Romney contest is still far from certain. If Obama wins, the renewed confrontation is indeed likely, but the truth is that no American president has been able to depose the Israeli Prime Minister – both Shamir and Netanyahu lost the elections because of their political mistakes and personal flaws.
For the prime minister, who has been burned in the past by calling early elections, to discard the stability of unchallenged power and to risk his political fortune on the outcome of the vote, however predictable, must mean more than just a mundane calculation of political survival. Which brings us to the only really important issue on the agenda, Iran.
For the exceptionally shortsighted Israel-watchers, the news of the political crisis was welcome, because it meant reprieve from the threat of as Israeli strike against Iran this summer, giving the appeasers more time to “work with Iran” on a creative formula that will enable the likes of Catherine Ashton to declare victory. In reality, the coming elections will serve as the referendum on Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak’s intentions to pursue the course of unilateral prevention against Tehran. While the decision to attack Iranian nuclear sites will obviously not be put to a vote or even openly debated, it will nevertheless hover in the air, and nothing helps to bring it to a fore like thoughtless, the recent ill-tempered attacks from the former leaders of the Israeli security establishment.
In the same poll in “Haaretz”, participants were asked whether they approve of the former head of the Israeli Security Agency, Yuval Diskin, attacking the political leadership of Israel, and the result left no room for debate. 51% disapproved of Diskin and only 25% agreed.
Netanyahu’s gratitude to Diskin, former Mossad Director Meir Dagan and others who take their path must be enormous. Not only do they unwittingly help him to sharpen the choice on Iran, but by making the debate about security, they virtually guarantee Netanyahu’s victory. If the elections will indeed occur in the beginning of September, they will leave the Prime Minister more than enough time to prepare his own “October surprise”.