Analysis: In politics, equality is the new loyalty

Netanyahu hoped to call elections on his own terms, but Yisrael Beytenu has other ideas – and a new campaign slogan.

PM Binyamin Netanyahu and FM Avigdor Lieberman 311 (R) (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
PM Binyamin Netanyahu and FM Avigdor Lieberman 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
If there is one thing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has consistently sought in the months since election rumors began to fly, it’s control.
The few statements on the topic coming from Likud sources have said that the prime minister will decide when to go to the polls and by the way, the government has been doing a great job for the past three years.
The Prime Minister’s Office has noticeably avoided commenting on the topic, not mentioning the word “elections” in press releases from a meeting with “Camp Sucker” activists and Sunday’s cabinet meeting, though other attendees said the topic was raised.
It seems as though Netanyahu’s strategy is to avoid discussing elections, to appear above the melee of politicians trying to predict his next move.
However, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Yisrael Beytenu are out to foil that plan, flexing their muscles as – Liberman’s favorite nickname for his party – the senior coalition member.
Throughout the three years since the coalition was formed, Yisrael Beytenu has been issuing thinly-veiled threats to break it apart, all the while saying they favor stability. For the most part, Liberman’s actions spoke louder than his threats, and his party has been a supportive and responsible senior coalition partner.
On Saturday and Sunday, however, Liberman repeatedly made it clear that stability is no longer his priority.
Yisrael Beytenu fulfilled its obligations, we were a faithful member of the coalition, now Netanyahu must keep his promises in the coalition agreement, the foreign minister said.
If the prime minister backs out on the agreements, Liberman added, there will probably be elections.
Yisrael Beytenu will put the interests of the voter before those of the coalition.
Think back to the Liberman’s last election campaign. What did he promise to voters? “No loyalty, no citizenship.”
Yisrael Beytenu ran on a platform of requiring loyalty oaths for Israeli citizens that do not qualify under the Law of Return. The bill was stymied by poor timing, since the government was worried about a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. Once that was no longer a concern, Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein said there are constitutional issues with the bill, and it has remained on hold.
The party had some minor successes in the loyalty front, such as passing a law that revokes citizenship from anyone convicted of treason, terror or aiding the enemy in a time of war. However, Yisrael Beytenu’s flagship policy, its top elections slogan, is stuck in limbo.
Since then, it looks like the senior coalition partner has replaced “loyalty” with “equality” – equality through universally requiring IDF or civilian service, that is – and is ready to take down the government if they don’t at least succeed in their plan B.
As far as Liberman is concerned, the next 10 days are crucial. On May 9, his party’s alternative to the “Tal Law” will go up to a vote in the Knesset.
This, according to Liberman, is Netanyahu’s test. If the law passes, then the prime minister appreciates Yisrael Beytenu’s value to the coalition, and stability is top priority again. If not, then it’s time for elections.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is keeping mostly quiet, with the occasional comment from Likud ministers and sources in his office about “not giving in to blackmail.”
In other words, the prime minister is interested in keeping his intentions mysterious and maintaining the upper hand.
However, with everyone from Meretz to Yisrael Beytenu saying early elections should be called in the next few weeks (meaning they will be held in three months), rumors have been flying about options that Netanyahu is exploring.
One theory, floated mostly by Meretz and Kadima, is that the prime minister is working with Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, who recently submitted a bill to dissolve the Knesset. Yacimovich has yet to decide when the bill will be put to a vote, leading her opponents to say she’s waiting for an OK from Netanyahu.
The prime minister would benefit from that scenario by appearing to favor stability and not bringing down the coalition on his own.
Netanyahu and Yacimovich would both do well with this plan, since they have been polling relatively well in recent weeks. Plus, a Labor- Likud partnership would certainly help Netanyahu maintain the element of surprise.
Of course, Yacimovich denies this rumor.
Another theory is that Netanyahu does not want early elections at all, as he has said in recent weeks.
Nothing is certain about the supposedly upcoming elections except for one thing: Netanyahu wants the upper hand, and will do whatever he can to keep Liberman from grabbing it.