Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called for early elections on Oct. 9, and the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday and then the Knesset on Monday set Jan. 22 as the date for national elections for the 19th Knesset.
Netanyahu cited his coalition’s inability to agree on the country’s next two-year budget as the catalyst behind his decision to ask for elections before their time; elections were supposed to be held in October 2013.
However, it does not appear that a round of elections will result in a new prime minister for the State of Israel. In fact, according to all of the recent polls, Netanyahu looks like he not only will win the head Knesset seat once again, but also may end up with a bigger coalition than he currently has.
A survey in the Israeli daily Maariv predicted Netanyahu’s Likud party taking 29 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. The party currently has 27. Another Israeli daily, Haaretz, said the next coalition government, led by Netanyau’s right-of-center Likud party and comprising mostly religious and nationalist parties, could command 68 seats, up from today’s 66.
“Netanyahu will absolutely get re-elected,” said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
Moreover, Netanyahu is the first-ever Israeli leader to pass a two-year budget (this past term), according to Matthew RJ Brodsky, director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center. The United States has gone three years without having passed a budget.
So the question that people are asking is, why? Why did the prime minister really feel the need to call for early elections — and then why did he push so hard to secure his Jan. 22 poll date?
Avi Melamed, an independent strategic intelligence analyst and former Israeli senior official on Arab affairs, said he believes Netanyahu’s decision could have to do with social issues. Currently, the coalition is comprised of parties further to the right and heavily religious. Netanyahu, explained Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post, would like to be seen as centrist.
There are two new political leaders that could offer Netanyahu the ability to move forward on important social issues, and those include Yair Lapid, son of the late secular politician Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, and Shelly Yachimovich, the new Labor party leader. Lapid, a journalist turned politician, is young and has no experience and is not considered competition for Netanyahu. However, his new centrist secular party, “Yesh Atid” (There is a Future), was met with much hype by young Israelis, and it likely will take some seats in the next election.
Labor and Yesh Atid will try to steer the election more toward social and economic issues, playing to the economic liberalism advocated by Israelis in the mass socioeconomic protests of summer 2011.
“I expect [Lapid and Yachimovich] will get considerable support,” said Melamed. “And I think Netanyahu is looking for that. He wants to create a friendlier environment that will allow him to move forward initiatives related to social and economic issues.”
Melamed said he thinks Netanyahu will work to bring Yesh Atid and Labor into his new coalition in January.
Another hot button and timely issue is the Israeli economy. Netanyahu can campaign on the fact that he was among the few leaders across the world who managed to keep his country from plummeting deep into the economic recession that rocked the U.S. beginning in 2007. However, there are signs pointing to an imminent economic collapse in the European Union, which would affect the Israeli economy. Netanyahu said that without a responsible budget, Israel could hit a devastating financial crisis like the ones in Europe.
“If the EU slides into a recession, that will have an impact on Israel’s economy, too,” explained Brodsky. “It would become more of an issue if the elections were put off [until October].”
But the main issue, the one that all analysts believe feeds strongest into Netanyahu’s decision to push the elections up, is Iran.
“With Netanyahu, whenever you wonder why he does something, there are always three answers: Iran, Iran, Iran,” quipped Hoffman.
Though the reality isn’t funny, Netanyahu, when speaking at the U.N. last month, brought a diagram to help him demonstrate where Iran is with regard to its nuclear proliferation. He took the pressure off the U.S. election, explained Abramson, by stating that Israel would only attack Iran when absolutely necessary. Then, Netanyahu said, that time would be somewhere between spring and summer.
“It’s interesting,” said Hoffman. “There is only one month that goes from spring to summer and that is called June. What’s in June? The Iranian election. … Things will come to a head in June with the election in Iran. What is the goal in everything Netanyahu does? Preventing war and keeping the world safe. People may not realize it, but it’s the truth.”
So, for Netanyahu, said Hoffman, it was important to get the elections out of the way in the winter, before the spring begins, so he can deal with his political opponents in Israel and then be able to devote his full attention to dealing with Israel’s real enemies.
He will need American support.
Abramson noted that Netanyahu is a “master strategist,” and he believes he chose Jan. 22 because of its close proximity — one day after the U.S. inauguration — to the American election.
“He can set himself for dealing with the U.S.,” said Abramson.
But Abramson conjectured that while polls are showing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to be more ready to take action against Iran, Abramson thinks this may not play out if Romney takes office. He said either U.S. candidate — President Barack Obama or Romney — will move on Iran with caution.
“A re-elected Obama will be very cautious, but he will move when necessary. I think his word is his word, and he will move when conditions are right in terms of American and Israeli interests,” said Abramson. “I think we are going to see an elected Romney to be a cautious Romney. … No one should assume a Romney victory is going to be a blank check for Israel.”
But other analysts do not necessarily agree with Abramson. Brodsky noted that the current Israeli government is not getting the sense from the Obama administration that “the U.S. has Israel’s back,” and he said that the countries cannot agree on what red-line threshold Iran can pass.
“That needs to be ironed out pretty quickly, and I am not sure that it has been … when the two leaders did not meet in September,” said Brodsky.
He believes Netanyahu and Romney see more eye-to-eye on what that red line should be. Obama, Brodsky explained, said Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon. Romney has said Iran should not be allowed to have nuclear capability.
“Capability is key. … If Iran has a lot of weapons-grade uranium, it can make a nuclear weapon quickly and secretly. It really depends where the red line is drawn,” said Brodsky.
Hoffman said Netanyahu pushed for Jan. 22 — as opposed to even one week later, Jan. 29 — because he wanted to get in before the new U.S. administration really does. Assuming Obama wins, he said, Hillary Clinton might leave and some of the other key players may be shifted as well. Obama could choose to rebuild the State Department, symbolic of a new start.
“Why do we not assume Romney [wins] and that this strategy is not for Romney?” asked Hoffman. “It doesn’t make sense to prepare for that. In Israel, we hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We don’t prepare for Romney winning,” he said.
Nonetheless, just like in America, said Brodsky, anything can happen overnight in a U.S. election, the same is true in Israel.
“So much can happen between now and then,” said Brodsky.
Noted Israeli Meretz party member Uri Zaki in a separate interview: “What is true in October 2012 may not be in January 2013.”