At this point last week, it seemed the top political questions for the coming
days would be whether Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would pass his plan for
free education for toddlers (he did) and whether newly elected Keren Kayemeth
LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund co-chairman Eli Aflalo would quit the Knesset (he
The Knesset Law Committee was set to vote Wednesday on a
bill that would have instituted at least a six-month cooling off period before
journalists can enter politics. But the committee vote wasn’t seen by the press
as a very deal, both because it wasn’t the final vote on the matter and due to
the legislation’s lack of a clear majority.
All it took was one man who
took the vote very seriously to completely change the country’s
Ironically, the man who knocked haredi (ultra-Orthodox)
discrimination against women off the front pages was none other than Yair Lapid,
the son of the late secularist Shinui leader Yosef “Tommy” Lapid and the man
whose television show, Ulpan Shishi, had made eight-year-old Na’ama Margolese of
Beit Shemesh a household name.
Does anyone remember Na’ama anymore? Does
the name Daphni Leef evoke any nostalgia? Both seem to have been forgotten in a
country with a dizzying news cycle.
Now all the focus is on elections and
how each party is preparing for them. In just one week, Lapid entered politics,
Noam Schalit, father of former kidnapped soldier Gilad, announced he was running
with Labor, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman hinted that his Israel Beiteinu
party wouldn’t sit in the next coalition with Shas, and Kadima leader Tzipi
Livni came under intense pressure to advance her party’s leadership race to the
Ready or not, election fever has begun.
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Does that mean the
next election is right around the corner? Probably not.
coalition is still stable, none of his coalition parties has an interest in
initiating an election and the prime minister himself still wants the election
held in 2013.
Ophir Akunis, the MK closest to Netanyahu, told the Knesset
this week that anyone who thinks there will be an election this year is living
in “La-la Land.”
Israelis have been spoiled by their last few elections
being quick and relatively painless. It could be that this time, the election
atmosphere will last more than a year before it’s finally over, like it does in
the United States.
In America, the constitution decides when the next
election will be. Here we have laws that set the next race for October 22, 2013
– but the prime minister can ask the president at any time to dissolve the
parliament and initiate an election.
The prime minister can also take
political steps that will bring the next election closer, whether wittingly or
That’s what has happened with two moves Netanyahu made in
recent months. The first move came on December 4, when Netanyahu advanced the
Likud leadership race from spring 2013 to January 31, 2012.
One of his
reasons for making this move was that he was at what might end up being the peak
of his political popularity and he wanted to get the primary out of the way at a
time when he could be assured that Likud activist Moshe Feiglin would be the
only candidate running against him and he could get reelected by a margin of
victory like those seen in Syria.
Netanyahu’s associates cautioned party
leaders and the press against interpreting his advancing the Likud race as an
indication that the prime minister was en route to initiating a general
election. But as inconsequential as the Likud race appeared to be, it still
meant that the Likud would be ready for an election and other parties had no
choice but to start getting ready, too.
“Bibi didn't think [advancing the
race in Likud] would initiate an election atmosphere,” a source close to
Netanyahu admitted. “He didn't think it would start a domino
When someone posted a false news story about Lapid condemning
Feiglin on Lapid’s Facebook wall Thursday, Lapid responded by mocking the story
and asking rhetorically why he should care about Feiglin. The correct answer,
which no one wrote back, is that were it not for Feiglin there wouldn’t have
been a race in Likud, election fever would not have begun, and Lapid would still
be a journalist today rather than a politician.
The second fateful step
Netanyahu took was enabling the Knesset Law Committee to put the so-called Lapid
Bill on its agenda. The bill requiring a cooling-off period for journalists was
proposed in June 2010 and had been blocked by the fierce opposition of committee
chairman David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), who prevented it from coming to a
Channel 2 Knesset correspondent Amit Segal reported exclusively on
December 28 that Netanyahu, via his chief of staff Natan Eshel, persuaded
Lieberman to instruct Rotem to bring the bill to a vote, which they believed
One of the reasons Rotem had kept the bill from advancing was
that Lieberman wanted Lapid in politics because he thought splitting the Center-Left could enable Israel Beiteinu to become the second-largest party after
Likud. According to the report, Eshel convinced Lieberman that Lapid would enter
politics regardless of the bill and that Kadima had fallen so far in the polls
that Israel Beiteinu was guaranteed to be the secondlargest party even if Lapid
remained a journalist.
Netanyahu wanted to advance the bill to force
Lapid to already enter politics now and quit Channel 2, where he was
broadcasting reports, like that protests in Beit Shemesh, that caused problems
for Netanyahu. Lapid’s premature entry into politics also helps Netanyahu
Lapid’s support will be given time to erode. And barring the
unlikely scenario of Lapid, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, or whoever wins the
Kadima race swallowing their pride and merging two of the parties ahead of the
next election, votes on the Center-Left will be split in three, leaving no party
large enough to give the Likud a fight.
But again, Netanyahu apparently
did not take into account that the buzz caused by Lapid entering politics would
intensify the election fever that he had already caused by advancing the Likud
race. Yacimovich had to respond to Lapid taking attention away from her party by
bringing out new recruits Schalit and Israel Police Insp.-Gen. (res.) Moshe
Lieberman invited a Channel 2 crew to follow him campaigning in
Druse villages on Tuesday. Shas chairman Eli Yishai even left the morning prayer
service at the home of party mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on Thursday in order to
interview with Israel Radio, something he never would have done if election
season hadn’t begun.
Despite the pre-election atmosphere, as long as
Netanyahu keeps his coalition partners satisfied, he can still prevent an
election from taking place in 2012. The most likely scenario is still that the
election will be initiated near the end of the year and take place in spring
2013, as The Jerusalem Post
predicted in its “Crystal Ball for 2012
” two weeks
But Lieberman’s hearing on corruption charges next week and the
State Comptroller’s report on the Carmel Fire that will be released the week
after have more potential to cause problems for Netanyahu during a pre-election
atmosphere than they would have otherwise.
In a country like this,
sometimes predicting the events of the coming week is just as hard as guessing
what will happen in the year ahead.
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