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    Middle East
     May 2, 2012

Bibi unrattled by early election noise
By Victor Kotsev

Seemingly out of the blue, the relationship between the parties in Israel's governing coalition is on the rocks and a decision on whether early elections will be held (and when) is expected shortly.

Several prominent political figures, including acting government ministers, have come out in favor of such a move in the past days. Much of the speculation currently centers on whether the elections will be held in August or September, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to prefer, or later.

On the one hand, the underlying issues - such as enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army and settlement outpost evacuations - are fairly minor, at least at a first glance.

As a prominent Israeli academic and intellectual interviewed by


Asia Times Online put it, nothing seems strong enough to warrant early elections. (A similarly placed source reached for comments last week, just before the crisis erupted in full, rejected this possibility outright.)

On the other hand, such a move could serve both the domestic and the foreign policy agenda of Netanyahu and the Israeli right, as it promises to cement Likud's (Netanyahu's party) lead in the polls and to catch unprepared several major new opponents who appeared on the Israeli political scene recently.

Moreover, assuming a comfortable win by Netanyahu it would strengthen the government's hand in dealing with major international challenges such as the Iranian nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab Spring.

At the very least, it would provide Netanyahu with a opportunity to save face while letting the Americans negotiate with Iran a little longer; in a slightly more speculative scenario, it could also help the Israeli prime minister weather the storm among his core constituency should he choose to support a compromise between the United States and Iran that does not meet his own stated criteria.

Alternatively, moreover, the distraction of elections could provide a cover for a surprise Israeli operation - surprise being a key element of Israeli military doctrine - and a domestic victory would strengthen Netanyahu's bargaining hand against United States President Barack Obama.

In retrospect - if we can speak of hindsight based on what is still only speculation about early elections - there were warning signs. Netanyahu's decision to call lightning Likud primaries in December, catching his main opponents inside the party unaware (the polls were held in January and he won comfortably) is one. Back then, the decision elicited a certain amount of speculation that it might harbinger early general elections, but the noise died down relatively soon.

Now it seems that the Israeli prime minister is keen to repeat the coup on a national level. He and his supporters may be overconfident, which is always a liability in politics (some Likud activists reportedly claimed they could win over 40% of the Israeli Knesset [parliament] seats) but nevertheless they appear to enjoy widespread popular support. According to the latest opinion polls, they stand to win at least a quarter of the Knesset seats [1] and increase their parliamentary presence by over 10% (30 seats as opposed to 27 currently). [2]

Overall, the right-of-center block is expected to increase its advantage over the left-of-center block slightly.

To be fair, even though the issues causing the cracks inside the government look minor, they cannot be overcome easily. The coalition over which Netanyahu presides is made up of parties that never saw eye to eye on basic social issues; now some of these issues are bubbling up, and while the timing is suspect, one could argue that it was always only a matter of time before the government fell apart.

As Israeli journalist Yossi Verter observes in an article dated April 22, "The settlements, Ulpana and Migron; an alternative to the Tal Law exempting most yeshiva students from military service, which expires in July and the major difficulty the government has in passing a reduction-heavy budget - these are all very high hurdles, almost too high, for a government in its fourth year." [3] (For an insightful discussion of some issues surrounding the drafting of ultra-Orthodox religious students in the army, see also Amos Harel's article "Haredim and the IDF: A crisis with no solution?") [4]

However, these time bombs notwithstanding, the real roots of the early elections speculation are likely very different. They pertain to the inevitable desire of those in power to stay in power, as well as to several domestic and international developments.

A month ago, Israel's main opposition party Kadima (which in fact holds more Knesset seats than the Likud but was elbowed out of the ability to form a government) acquired a new leader: the former chief of staff of the Israeli army Shaul Mofaz. He took the place of Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, who was widely perceived as an ineffective leader of the opposition.

It was widely anticipated that, aided by his tough security credentials and his allegedly more pragmatic political positions, Mofaz would be in a much better position to challenge Netanyahu than Livni ever was. Mofaz had proposed his own peace plan in 2009 [5], and soon after winning the Kadima primaries this year he set out to plan a series of measures, including tapping the social protests which are again expected in Israel this summer, to cast himself as a viable alternative to the current government.

However, by most accounts, he needs time in order to set his political program in motion, and an early election might put a spoke in his wheels.

Netanyahu faces a different challenge from several more recently retired high-ranking security officials, including the legendary chief of the Mossad (Israeli foreign spy service), Meir Dagan, the former chief of the army Gabi Ashkenazi, and the former head of the counter-intelligence service Yuval Diskin. In fact, the government current crisis broke out in full after a series of exchanges over the weekend, in which these - and other prominent former and current officials - argued over the government's policy. [6]

All three above-mentioned security officials seem to be eyeing political careers; they are bound by law to a three-year cooling period, yet there have been calls - specifically by Israel's Labor party - to reduce this period [7]. Besides, a prime minister can circumvent the cooling period by appointing a former security official to a ministerial position as an independent expert; in any case, Netanyahu likely sees them as formidable opponents in the not too distant future.

Not least, in January this year a star Israeli journalist - Yair Lapid - announced that he was leaving the world of media in order to join that of politics. He promised to revive Israeli politics, and subsequently established a new party called "Yesh Atid" ("There is Future"). His early popularity seems to have dropped somewhat, and he does not draw much support from Netanyahu's power base (which makes him less of a threat), but given time, he could nevertheless present a new wild card in Israeli politics.

By most accounts, Netanyahu and his right-wing allies are best prepared for elections. This may well have pushed the prime minister to let the cracks in the coalition spread almost to the point of no return. However, there are also major foreign policy considerations at play.

There are increasing indications, for example, that a deal between the United States and Iran may be in the works over the disputed Iranian nuclear program. Even the more recent muscle flexing - such as the announcement that the US had sent F-22 stealth fighter planes to bases near the Persian Gulf - seems to be a bluff, a sign of haggling over the specifics of the agreement (such as Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium to five or 20%), rather than real threats. This, however, presents a serious dilemma to Netanyahu, who has promised to stop the Iranian nuclear program and reportedly considers the American concessions too generous.

The Israeli premier was reportedly rebuffed by Obama over the past weeks as he tried to push for a military option. Dr Gershon Baskin, a prominent figure in the Israeli peace movement and the director of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, told Asia Times Online: "I am pretty sure that the message he got in Washington was 'don't even think about it. You'll get no support in the United States, in Washington, from anyone. Not from the military, not from the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], not from the president, and not even from congress. So don't even consider striking Iran now'."

According to other reports, Netanyahu asked for a suitable price for delaying a strike on Iran - over US$1 billion for missile defenses, on top of the over $3 billion Israel already receives annually. [8]

This means that he is considering delaying an attack by at least a few months, possibly longer. Such a development would present a challenge to him: not only would he lose face domestically, but he also he could also undermine the credibility of the Israeli threat against the Islamic Republic, which has arguably contributed greatly to the international effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

An electoral campaign would provide the perfect excuse to avoid losing momentum while giving diplomacy a chance to run its course. Assuming that the elections are held - and the whole thing is not an elaborate bluff - a convincing Netanyahu victory would strengthen rather than detract from the credibility of the militant Israeli rhetoric.

The re-elected prime minister would have less to worry about in case of a botched attack on the Islamic Republic, and this would in many ways untie his hands. At the very least, the elections would represent a symbolic referendum on Netanyahu's policy, and if successful, he would have considerably greater leverage to go against the will of the American president.

We could imagine also a radically different peaceful outcome of a Netanyahu victory: he could, for example, form a more moderate coalition next time around, perhaps by allying himself with some of the newcomers on the Israeli political scene. In turn, the death of Netanyahu's famous father Benzion Netanyahu in Jerusalem at the age of 102 on Monday, according to some speculation, could liberate the prime minister of certain historic burdens. [9]

Add to this mix a suitable amount of pressure on Israel following the US elections - assuming Obama is also re-elected - and some truly incredible developments could follow, both vis-a-vis Iran and on the Palestinian track. For now, however, these are wild speculations, and only the future will show what the Israeli prime minister intends - and is capable of.

1. Ha'aretz early elections snapshot/Likud activists predict landslide win, Ha'aretz, April 30, 2012.
2. Poll predicts 30 mandates for Likud, Ynet, April 30, 2012.
3. Discord over West Bank outpost threatening Netanyahu coalition, Ha'aretz, April 22, 2012.
4. Haredim and the IDF: A crisis with no solution?, Ha'aretz, April 24, 2012.
5. Politics: The opposition leader's peace plan, Jerusalem Post, April 11, 2012.
6. See the following articles: 1. Analysis: Why did Diskin speak out now?, Jerusalem Post, April 30, 2012 and 2. Tehran, Obama hot topics at 'Post' conference, Jerusalem Post, April 30, 2012.
7. Labor seeks to slash cooling-off period for officers entering politics, Ha'aretz, December 16, 2011.
8. Israel seeks multi-year US missile defense aid , Jerusalem Post, April 4, 2012.
9. The shadow that Netanyahu's late father cast: The world is against us, Ha'aretz, April 30, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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