Politics: Cashing in his chips

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took advantage of his popularity, initiating an election that polls show he’ll romp over his opponents.

PM Netanyahu reading 'The Jerusalem Post' 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
PM Netanyahu reading 'The Jerusalem Post' 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It was a coincidence that last Friday The Jerusalem Post published a poll asking Israelis whom they would vote in the next Knesset election – the first Smith Research survey sponsored by this newspaper in which that question was asked since before the last general election in February 2009.
Friday night, Channel 2 broke the story that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was seriously considering advancing the next general election to as early as August. That report may have been intended as a trial balloon, but within a few days the entire political establishment got carried away, and a September 4 election was set.
Advisers to Netanyahu sounded well-versed in the results of the Post poll, citing them without even being prompted. The poll, like others published this week, found that the Likud would win more than twice as many mandates as any other party.
But his advisers insisted that Netanyahu had initiated the election not because of any survey but because he genuinely could no longer put up with his coalition partners’ threats to violate coalition discipline and act increasingly independently. They said he would have loved to hold the election on time on October 22, 2013, but his political allies left him no choice but to initiate the race now and seek four more years in office.
“The threats had become intolerable,” one adviser said. “Bibi is not a kindergarten teacher and he did not want to endure a year and a half of political extortion. He is the last one who has to be afraid of elections.” Netanyahu’s advisers refused to single out one coalition partner as being especially problematic.
But there was no doubt that the prime minister was particularly vexed by the behavior of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.
At a pre-Passover toast Liberman hosted at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hotel on April 3, he complained about the lack of progress in finding an alternative to the Tal Law to facilitate drafting yeshiva students to the IDF and about Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s handling of outposts.
“We don’t want elections now for a thousand reasons, but if someone thinks we are hostages because of coalition agreements and because of my legal procedures, they are mistaken,” Liberman said. “We expect decisive decisions to be made and not further stalling.”
While Netanyahu said in multiple interviews that he wanted to last an entire term and he did not intend to initiate elections, that same day he started adding a caveat that he was not sure whether his coalition partners would take steps to overthrow him and cause elections sooner than he would want.
The prime minister intended the caveat as a warning to his coalition partners to get back in line or risk initiating an election that could help him and harm them. Perhaps they should have taken that warning to heart, knowing that with polls looking so good for Netanyahu, he might be seeking any excuse to advance the election and blame it on them.
But Liberman only upgraded his threats, pronouncing himself no longer obligated by coalition agreements and only committed to his voters in a Channel 2 interview Saturday night. Liberman’s statement was taken out of context in headlines. He did not mean it as an immediate threat to leave but as a way of emphasizing how important it was to pass his party’s alternative to the Tal Law.
Netanyahu immediately called Liberman’s bluff, and the process of initiating an election snowballed the rest of the week, not even stopping while the prime minister buried his father Benzion and sat shiva.
Whether the early election is good or bad for Liberman is not a function of polls, most of which show his Yisrael Beytenu party maintaining its current 15 seats. It depends on what Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein intended to do had the election not forced him to put the conclusion of his investigation of Liberman on corruption charges on hold until after the race.
There had been leaks that Weinstein might decide not to indict Liberman after all, freeing him from the overlapping criminal investigations that have plagued his entire 13-year political career. Perhaps if Netanyahu would have waited even a few more months, he would have faced off against a Liberman unencumbered by the cloud of a pending indictment in a contest for votes among their right-wing political base. If Netanyahu does as well in the election as polls currently indicate, perhaps he should go straight from the traditional victory visit to the Western Wall to the site worshiped by the secular Left: the Supreme Court.
The court’s February 21 ruling that the Tal Law was unconstitutional (10 years after it passed) and had to be replaced by August 1 created an artificial confrontation between Yisrael Beytenu and the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties. If Netanyahu needed for there to be a crack in his otherwise stable coalition, he finally had one.
“If someone wants an election in 2012, it will have to be connected to the Tal Law,” coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin accurately predicted in a February 9 interview with the Post, 12 days before the Supreme Court ruling.
“Bibi can go to an election over drafting haredim because he can form a government without them and the Left cannot. Or better yet, he could let the haredim topple the government, which would give him a good card to play in the race.”
In their efforts to persuade Netanyahu to initiate an election, his advisers cited the split in the Center-Left among Labor, Kadima, and former journalist Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party. New Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz’s failure to rise in the polls made it an especially ripe time for Netanyahu to hold the race.
The advisers cautioned Netanyahu against waiting too long, advising him that both he and the Israeli economy have reached their peak and can only go down, while the cost of living and unemployment would rise.
The prime minister also preempted socioeconomic protests that are expected this summer.
As with any decision by Netanyahu on anything, a key factor is Iran. On one hand, Netanyahu would have wanted to keep Ehud Barak as his defense minister, which would apparently require delaying an election that is likely to end Barak’s political career. But on the other hand, if a military strike is in the offing, it makes sense to hold the election first – in case anything goes wrong with such a sensitive maneuver.
Holding the race in September will enable the winner of the race to form a new coalition before the November 6 election in the United States. If one assumes that the US would want to wait until after their election before considering such a strike, it would be good to have the Israeli government in place by then.
But Netanyahu’s advisers said the identity of the winner of the US election was not a factor in deciding to move up Israel’s. They confirmed that in the past they had advised Netanyahu to initiate an election before US President Barack Obama has the chance to get reelected, due to fears that if Obama did not have to worry about losing Jewish votes, he could interfere in the Israeli race and harm Netanyahu as US presidents have in the past.
Why do the advisers no longer consider Obama a problem? Have personal relations between the president and Netanyahu improved? Not really.
The reason they say Obama is no longer a factor is that public opinion of the US president has improved in Israel. Their source? Last Friday’s Jerusalem Post poll.
The poll found that the percentage of Israelis who believe that Obama’s administration leans toward the Palestinians is equal to the percentage who think it favors Israel.
So, at least in that respect, The Jerusalem Post played a role in Netanyahu’s decision after all.