Politics: Three’s a crowd?

Binyamin Netanyahu is being advised to advance the next race despite the many reasons not to.

February 10, 2012 16:26
Netanyahu at the polls

Netanyahu at the polls_390. (photo credit: Reuters)

A significant milestone for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu passed unnoticed last Monday on the eve of his victory in the Likud leadership race.

That day was the 1,083rd since his election. In Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, he lasted exactly 1,083 days from the May 29, 1996, election that he won until the May 17, 1999, election that he lost.

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The next milestone for Netanyahu is today, Friday, February 10: the third anniversary of his 2009 election victory. And this milestone will undoubtedly be marked.

Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin started off the festivities during Monday’s Likud faction meeting by mocking Netanyahu’s nay-sayers.

“This coalition has endured so many people predicting our end,” Elkin said. “Every date passes and we move on. We have a lot of time until the next election.”

Elkin boasted even more in private conversations, noting the rarity in Israel’s history of a coalition with the same prime minister and the same parties reaching the three-year mark without an election being initiated. Elkin seemed ready for the real festivities – when the formation of the government reaches the three-year mark on March 31.

Speaking following the announcement of a new campaign to change the political system headed by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Elkin said that when people talk about changing the system they complain about the lack of stability and, for lack of a real word, governability.

“Here we have stability and the coalition has passed whatever it wanted without the opposition’s interference,” Elkin said. “That’s different than what usually happens with coalitions that start losing Knesset votes at the end of their first year, lose regularly by the end of the second and have trouble passing anything in the third.”

MULTIPLE TESTS lie ahead. After the Kadima leadership race on March 27, efforts will restart to break up the party and bring defectors into the coalition. If this move is successful and the coalition expands from its current 66 MKs, Netanyahu could coast to the scheduled date of the next election, October 22, 2013.

The second test will be Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein’s decision on indicting Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which could either lengthen the coalition’s days or cut them back significantly. Lieberman, whose third hearing took place Thursday, vowed again this week not to let his legal troubles decide the government’s longevity. But Netanyahu has made no such promise, and he could very well decide to initiate an election at the toughest time for his strongest competition for votes among his rightwing political base.

Elkin and Netanyahu’s most challenging test in the immediate future is finding a new formula for drafting haredim (ultra-Orthodox) into the IDF in place of the unpopular Tal Law.

Lieberman, the religious parties or even Netanyahu himself could use this hot-button issue as an excuse to initiate an election. The prime minister could score political points for the election by allowing his government to be toppled by the haredim.

Netanyahu seemed resolute to keep his current government in power for as long as possible in an interview with the Knesset Channel on Monday. He spoke about an election being held on time as a realistic possibility and said “I would not shorten this term.”

But at least one senior adviser and an American Jewish leader he respects are both telling him to do just that. They each cautioned Netanyahu against waiting too long, advising him that both he and the Israeli economy have reached their peak and can only go down, while the cost of living and support for other parties will rise.

The senior adviser said he told Netanyahu that the ideal time to initiate an election will be after the Kadima primary, when he expects turf wars to intensify in the Center-Left among Kadima, Labor, and journalist Yair Lapid’s as-yet unformed party. He has warned the prime minister that he must take action before those parties stop attacking each other and gang up on him or even decide to run together.

THERE IS one piece of advice that Netanyahu’s Israeli advisers have been telling him that the American Jewish leader rejects: The Israelis are telling the prime minister that the next election must be held in October.

Why October? Only because it comes before November – and on November 6 they expect US President Barack Obama to be reelected. The Israeli advisers are convinced that while Obama will not interfere with an Israeli election while he is seeking Jewish votes, the moment he wins he will start working tirelessly to ensure that someone who will do more to advance a peace deal will beat Netanyahu.

The advisers have history to back them up. Bill Clinton blatantly helped Ehud Barak beat Netanyahu in 1999, even sharing his Democratic political strategists with him. Clinton was also accused of trying to help Shimon Peres beat Netanyahu in 1996, and George H. W. Bush was seen as interfering in the 1992 election on behalf of Yitzhak Rabin.

But the American Jewish leader, who is not seen as a fan of the current president, does not expect that to happen this time. He said that if Obama is reelected he will be too busy forming a new cabinet to pay attention to Israel. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she will step down, and chances are that much of her team will leave with her.

The Jewish leader described the time between the November 6 election and the January 20 inauguration as “dead time” for the president no matter who wins the race, so, he said, Netanyahu would not have to worry about Obama taking action until after that.

Whether the Israeli election is held before or after the American race also has significance for another reason. The Basic Law states that “if the Knesset decides to dissolve itself, the next Knesset’s term will last until the [Hebrew calendar month] Heshvan following four years since the day of its election.”

The law specifically names the third Tuesday in Heshvan as Election Day, except in years after a leap year on the Hebrew calendar, in which case the election would be held on the first Tuesday of Heshvan.

THE YEAR 5776 is a leap year. The first Tuesday in Heshvan 5777 is the seventh day of the month, which in 5773 falls on Tuesday, October 23, 2012. Therefore, if the Israeli election is held before that date in 2012, the next election will be set for Heshvan 7, 5777, which corresponds to November 8, 2016. If the election is held after that date in 2012, the next race would not be held until the third Tuesday of Heshvan in 5778, which is November 7, 2017 – a full year later.

What would happen if Netanyahu was to initiate an election exactly on October 23, 2012 is a question that the Central Election Committee’s legal adviser, Ehud Shilat, said would have to be decided by the High Court of Justice. Because elections legally must be held on Tuesdays, the only potential election date ahead of the American elections that could give Netanyahu a fifth year in office is Tuesday, October 30.

That key information could also impact Netanyahu’s decision about advancing the next election for other reasons. For instance, those arguing that elections will be advanced usually cite the difficulty in passing a state budget during an election year.

They say the Knesset starts working on passing the budget in July, and Netanyahu will not want to pass a budget that could be seen as harming weak sectors or be accused of giving in to extortion from his coalition partners.

Initiating an election in July would result in it being held in October. Under Netanyahu, Israel became the first country in the world to pass a two-year budget, so the prime minister probably would not mind if the current budget stays in place another few months until after a general election.

Then again, perhaps how Israelis see their economy should not be a factor in the first place, because when the economy hit its peak, 300,000 people took to the streets to protest against it. And Netanyahu knows that those protests did not harm him much in the polls anyway.

The final factor that could decide when Israel’s next election will be is the most important one: Iran. If Netanyahu does not believe the new round of European and American sanctions will succeed in persuading Iran to stop its nuclear program, does he want to have an election before or after a military strike? The adviser recommending that Netanyahu advance the election says it must be held before an attack on Iran, which he believes could lead to retaliation resulting in heavy casualties on the Israeli home front.

But Netanyahu’s main adviser on security issues is Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The only thing that looks darker than the prospect of a nuclear Iran is the political future of Barak, whose Independence Party does not pass the electoral threshold in any poll.

Netanyahu could break his repeated promises not to bring Barak into Likud or he could appoint him as defense minister in his next government as a professional appointment, like he did with Justice Minister Ya’akov Ne’eman. But either of those moves would be very difficult for even a popular prime minister to accomplish.

The most likely scenario is that Barak, who turns 70 on Sunday, will retire following this term. If Netanyahu attacks Iran, he would surely want his former commander in the IDF by his side at the moment of truth.

The saber-rattling on Iran in last week’s Herzliya Conference resulted in a query about an Israeli strike being the first serious question NBC’s Matt Lauer asked Obama during Sunday’s Superbowl interview. But Israel lobbied hard for Europe’s sanctions on Iran, which do not take effect until July, and chances are they will be given time to work.

So it is possible that the main factor keeping Netanyahu's current government together does not have to do with Shas, Lieberman or even Obama, but with the three answers that must be given whenever anyone asks why Netanyahu does anything: Iran, Iran and Iran.

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