Why Netanyahu doesn’t want an election now

Netanyahu has repeatedly said that we are in a “sensitive security situation,” and he is not wrong.

 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
All the talk of a victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in delaying an early election begs the question of why he made such frantic efforts toward that end.
What would be so bad if there was an election now?
Netanyahu has repeatedly said that we are in a “sensitive security situation,” and he is not wrong. Sources with knowledge of the matter say that security forces are trying to keep the front with Gaza as quiet as possible, because they are much more concerned about growing threats in the north. An Iranian missile storehouse under a stadium in Beirut, which Netanyahu mentioned in his speech to the UN earlier this year, is of particular concern.
Of course, this isn’t a new threat, and a few weeks ago there were reports in the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom that the prime minister was already examining what the best election date for him would be.
The major reason Netanyahu has been trying to delay an election is because of security, but not in the way he has been portraying it.
It’s because the truce drawn with Hamas last week, after they shot 460 rockets at Israeli civilians, was so unpopular.
On Thursday, polls on multiple channels showed Israelis are unhappy with the outcome. A Channel 2 News poll showed only 17% were satisfied with Netanyahu’s management of the escalation, while 74% were unsatisfied. A KAN News poll showed only 19% thought Netanyahu did the right thing, while 65% thought he did badly. The same poll found that 64% of Israelis thought Israel should have expanded attacks on Gaza, and 49% thought Hamas won the round of fighting, while only 14% responded that Israel did. Those are not numbers Netanyahu was happy to see.
As a Likud source pointed out, public opinion was not with Netanyahu at the end of Operation Protective Edge in August 2014. But Netanyahu waited it out until November to call an election, when his numbers were up. Then, as the election approached, he was able to say that Gaza had been quiet for six months, thanks to him.
“People have short memories,” the Likud source said. And Netanyahu is relying on it this time, so he can get back his “Mr. Security” reputation.
There are some other reasons for Netanyahu pursuing the delay, although the negative polls are the major one.
The prime minister was unhappy that Liberman took control of the situation with his surprise resignation from the Defense Ministry and the coalition, and Netanyahu would much rather appear to be the boss at all times.
There’s also the matter of an election date. When Netanyahu looked into possible election dates, he realized May would be best for him. It would be right after Independence Day, where he can give rousing, statesmanlike speeches, and the Eurovision, which is sure to make Israelis proud. His speech to AIPAC and the standing ovations that come with it will have happened not long before, and could be used in campaign materials. And there’s a chance that the new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will make good on his promise to move its embassy to Jerusalem, a Likud source pointed out.
But calling an election in November and holding it in May would make the election campaign period twice as long as necessary, making it more unpredictable. Precedent shows that incumbents lose long elections in Israel.
If this coalition can hold it together for another six weeks to two months, Netanyahu can pull off a May election. The minimum waiting period for an election is 90 days, and then it would be easy to convince people not to hold an election around the long holiday period of Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day and Independence Day.
What was really politically brilliant about Netanyahu’s behavior in the past five days is that he acted in a way that would work whether or not an early election really happened.
His accusations that his coalition partners are being irresponsible and cynical would either successfully get the election delayed, or they would make Netanyahu seem like the responsible adult who cares about Israel’s security when other politicians don’t.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett may have consulted with Nobel Prize winner Robert Aumann before making his political decisions on Monday, but it turns out that Netanyahu is a real game theory expert.