Analysis: It's all been about Israeli, not US, vote

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's early election announcement puts last few months in perspective.

Haredi man casts ballot elections 390 (R) (photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
Haredi man casts ballot elections 390 (R)
(photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision Tuesday night to call for new elections should force a revision of recent history.
By recent history I am not talking about four years ago, but rather four weeks ago. In light of the prime minister’s move to call for elections, there is a need to reassess anew all his talk the last few weeks about red lines on Iran and the public squabbling with the US.
Conventional wisdom – the wisdom spread by so many here and abroad – was that Netanyahu was manufacturing a crisis with the US administration just two months before US elections.
Many said he was publicly talking about red lines on Iran and criticizing Washington for not setting them because he was trying to intervene in their elections, and bend them toward Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
Wrong. Netanyahu’s comments were aimed not at the US electorate, but at the Israeli one. He too realized what it did not take a PhD in political science to figure out: It is a huge gamble to place all bets on Romney, perchance he lose.
Netanyahu was not trying to shake US President Barack Obama, but rather trying to solidify his own position as this country’s unrivaled leader.
That Netanyahu was headed for elections became clear during a Rosh Hashana interview with The Jerusalem Post, though he didn’t explicitly state it. It became clear in the way he kept talking about how he stands up to the world, even when it is not popular; and about how he has the experience that the two people he views as his main challengers – Labor head Shelly Yacimovich and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid – lack.
Those were not answers to direct questions, but rather election talking points.
Netanyahu, it became clear from that interview, believes that what the country wants – what it respects – is a leader who stands up to the world, and, yes, even to Obama. And he was intent on sharpening the image that he is just such a leader.
While many of Netanyahu’s critics around the world mocked his propaided speech at the United Nations two weeks ago, in Israel that speech went over well. There was the country’s leader, speaking perfect English, lecturing the world, standing up for Israel’s inalienable right to defend itself and laying out exactly the point beyond which there would be military action.
The question was not whether certain columnists in Yediot Aharonot or Haaretz liked the speech or the bomb cartoon, but how it came across to the common folk (amcha) – and judging by anecdotal evidence and random conversations, amcha liked it.
Anecdotal evidence and random conversations, obviously, are not scientific.
But the polls are, or at least purport to be. And in the polls, Netanyahu has not been hurt at all – in fact has been helped – by the tough talk on Iran and the willingness to go head-to head with even the US over the issue.
For instance, a Haaretz poll taken at the end of September following the screaming headlines about conflict with Obama, had Likud winning 28 Knesset seats, eight more than Labor, its nearest competitor.
That was three seats more than a Haaretz poll had Netanyahu winning at the beginning of August, when no one had yet heard about red lines.
A more important indication is that according to an aggregate of polls called Israel Poll Trends that appears on Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner’s blog, the Likud/Right/religious party bloc went from 65 seats in the beginning of August to over 67 seats in September.
Netanyahu’s assertive talk, those polls indicate, is good domestic politics.
Those around the world who view everything Israel-related recently through the prism of an imminent attack on Iran will be asking one question this morning: How will the early elections impact on a possible IDF strike on the Fordow enrichment facility? There will be those who will draw parallels with the 1981 attack on the Iraqi reactor, inasmuch as that attack did take place just three weeks before Knesset elections in which prime minister Menachem Begin and Likud defeated (current President) Shimon Peres and Labor for a second time. Surely, the argument will run, Netanyahu will attack – or Defense Minister Ehud Barak will urge an attack – to improve their chances at the ballot box.
While Netanyahu looks certain, according to the polls, to win the next elections, Barak – according to this argument – will need something dramatic, like an attack on Iran, to prolong his political life. He will press for an attack for this purpose, some will argue.
These arguments, however, should be put in perspective.
Various pundits have been saying for months that Barak was itching for an attack to improve his political prospects. Yet no attack came.
The same people who have been warning about Israeli military action for months, said last May – when it seemed as if the country was going to new elections – that this was in order to make it easier to attack Iran. And then, too, when Netanyahu reversed fields and formed a short-lived coalition with Kadima head Shaul Mofaz, they said that was only to ease an attack on Iran as well. And when that coalition fell apart, it – of course – was only to pave the way for an attack on Iran.
It’s all about Iran, this argument has run for months, if not years. Just as the ceaseless chatter about how Netanyahu has been interfering in the US elections on behalf of Romney presupposes that it is all about the US elections.
It isn’t. What it has been about for the last few months, and what it will definitely be about for the next 12 weeks or more, is the Israeli electorate and what Netanyahu believes will build him up in the public’s eyes. What Netanyahu has said and done for the last few months – from red lines to publicly calling out the US to his diagram at the UN – must be seen within that context.