A light Yair away from elections?

Did Netanyahu miscalculate by setting off election fever? Has Yair Lapid jumped the gun on his political career?

Yair Lapid 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yair Lapid 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 hasn't yet).
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 agenda.
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 spring.
Ready or not, election fever has begun.
Does that mean the next election is right around the corner? Probably not.
Netanyahu’s 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 unwittingly.
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 effect.”
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 vote.
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 would pass.
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 politically.
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 Mizrahi.
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 ago.
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.