Ironic elections: How the ballot box could help — or harm — Netanyahu

An election has not been held on time since 1988, when Netanyahu was elected to the Knesset for the first time.

March 4, 2018 16:32
3 minute read.
Yair Netanyahu observes his father Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casting a ballot in the

Yair Netanyahu observes his father Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casting a ballot in the 2015 elections.. (photo credit: REUTERS/SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/POOL)

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his friend US President Donald Trump in Washington on Monday, they can talk about the differences between elections in Israel and the US.

The most obvious, of course, is that American presidential elections are set for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, every four years. Israeli elections are also set for every four years, but an election has not been held on time since 1988, when Netanyahu was elected to the Knesset for the first time.

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Another difference is the duration of elections, which last three months in Israel, while in the US campaigning begins three years in advance.

The first two differences lead to a third, which is that American politicians have plenty of time to plan for their elections, while in Israel they kind of sneak up on you.

That appears to be taking place now, as Netanyahu and all of his coalition partners have started sentences over the past few days that have begun with the words: “I don’t want to go to elections, but...”

Because elections could take place any time, politicians lose their ability to compromise on issues their constituents care about, for fear of harming themselves in the race ahead.

Under normal circumstances, the current controversy over drafting yeshiva students could be easily resolved by forming a committee and kicking the can down the road. After all, the Supreme Court’s deadline for drafting yeshiva students is still months away, and the 2019 state budget could be passed any time in the year ahead.

But the phantom election hovering in the distance has prevented Netanyahu from putting this crisis off until after the next holiday. In a vicious circle, his coalition partners’ behavior – in the face of an election that is not there yet – brings it closer and closer, until it suddenly arrives.

There has been speculation for months that one of the parties in the coalition would bring it down due to Netanyahu’s criminal investigations. It would be ironic if the government instead falls apart over the regular grind of matters of religion and state.

Then there are the theories that Netanyahu himself is initiating an election because he believes the timing is good for him. Zionist Union faction chairman Yoel Hasson presented a conspiracy theory in which Netanyahu and United Torah Judaism head Ya’acov Litzman have decided that Litzman would force the election on Netanyahu’s behalf.

Hasson noted that the bill for drafting yeshiva students was only proposed when the deadline for proposing bills in preliminary readings had already passed. He compared what is happening now to Netanyahu’s behavior ahead of the 2005 Gaza Strip withdrawal when he came out strongly against it the moment the withdrawal could technically no longer be prevented.

Initiating elections in mid-March, before the Knesset begins its spring recess, would result in elections being held in June. That timing would suit the prime minister because it would come right after the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday, and perhaps, another high-profile visit to Israel of Trump to cut the ribbon on a US Embassy in Jerusalem.

Trump’s Middle East peace plan could then also be held back until after the election instead of being presented before, when it could harm the prime minister politically.

Netanyahu can claim to his voters that he did not give in to the extortion of United Torah Judaism and Shas, even though he has before and if elected, surely would again.

Holding the race before Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit decides whether to indict Netanyahu on bribery charges could also be in Netanyahu’s interests. But then again, so could holding onto power as long as possible and stalling elections until 2019.

If Netanyahu is actively or passively encouraging a race to take place now, he is taking a serious risk. The major issue of the election
could be clean governance, and the police could leak damaging information at any given time.

Just like the date of elections in Israel is hard to control, so is their outcome. But that is true in any democracy. Netanyahu and Trump could talk about that in Washington, too.

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