Politics: Embarking on early elections

Why the prime minister seems set to pass up on history to go to the polls.

Netanyahu at AIPAC 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu at AIPAC 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the April 30 funeral of Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres told mourning Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that while his father had written about history, he was making it.
One week later, the prime minister ended the process of advancing elections, giving himself a chance to make history by having one government complete an entire term in office on the exact date that it was supposed to by law: October 22, 2013.
Who was the last prime minister to do that? It depends on how you define it.
The last Knesset election held on time occurred on November 1, 1988, after the Knesset lasted more than four years. But can you count a government that, thanks to a rotation agreement between Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, had two prime ministers? Menachem Begin’s first term in office lasted four years, but the 1981 election was set for November and was advanced by six months, so that doesn’t really count either. Golda Meir in 1973? Her term was extended by the Yom Kippur War, so she also doesn’t qualify.
The 1969 election was held on time on October 28, 1969, but the previous term had two prime ministers due to the death of Levi Eshkol and his replacement by Meir. Eshkol and David Ben-Gurion were both prime minister in the term before that.
Ben-Gurion was the only prime minister in the third Knesset, which lasted more than four years, and the 1959 election was held in November. But Ben-Gurion resigned in 1957, and although he formed the same coalition a week later, technically it was a different government.
So the answer is remarkably: None of the above.
Not one Israeli prime minister has done it, and Netanyahu still can. All he has to do is pass the 2013 state budget, and he can complete his term and go down in history as the prime minister with the most stable government ever.
And yet, it appears the prime minister’s mind is made up. Barring unforeseen circumstances, when the Knesset comes back to session on October 15, he will initiate a February election. Why would Netanyahu, who has such a sense of history, give up a rare chance to make it? Senior Likud officials who understand the prime minister’s thinking said the historical trivia listed above was the only reason they could think of to not go to elections. They had many more reasons why it would be smart for Netanyahu to go to the polls.
Netanyahu will explain his decision in a speech to the cabinet on October 14 or to the Likud faction the following day. Meanwhile, the senior Likud officials offered 10 logical explanations:
1. Iran is always Netanyahu’s foremost consideration.
It is good to get the next election out of the way before dealing with Iran. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu appeared to extend his deadline for preventing Iran’s nuclearization to spring or summer, giving him until then to complete internal political business.
When Netanyahu appeared to initiate an election in May, he said he was doing it to “lead Israel in the face of the great challenges still ahead of us.” In the event that all other options fail and Netanyahu has to initiate war with Iran, his advisers have told him that it would be taking a huge risk to attack before elections. They said a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities could make him a hero or end his political career.
2. Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s views on Iran have changed over time, as the Americans persuaded him to be more cautious while failing to convince Netanyahu.
One of Netanyahu’s main reasons for not initiating an election in September was that he wanted to keep Barak as his defense minister and he was concerned that an election would end the unpopular Barak’s political career. Now he is less concerned about that.
3. Netanyahu does not like being undermined. He was not afraid to start a public fight with Peres when he thought the president crossed a red line, even though picking a fight with the man who will choose the next prime minister was risky.
Going to elections now and making an issue of Barak’s disloyalty could deter politicians from misbehaving in his next term. If Barak does cross the threshold and become a minister again, he will know to be more careful in his dealings with the US. That deterrence is important to Netanyahu, who fears that Barak and US President Barack Obama could conspire against him on the Palestinian issue.
4. In the statement he issued on Tuesday revealing that he was considering elections, Netanyahu made a point of saying that he might go to the polls after completing four years in office. He was elected on February 10, 2009.
If the next election is held February 12, 2013, it would be an undeniable accomplishment. It’s not Netanyahu’s fault that the law goes by the Jewish calendar, which made his current term four years and nine months long.
5. The polls are good. A Dialog poll in Haaretz a week ago predicted that the Likud would rise from 27 seats to 28 and the Center- Right bloc from 65 to 66. The poll indicated that he had recovered from unpopular decisions about drafting yeshiva students and forming a national-unity government with Kadima. Who can say that the polls would be just as good a year from now? 6. One reason Netanyahu is doing so well in the polls is that no Center-Left politician is viewed as a serious contender.
The prime minister is scared that four parties on the Center-Left could unite and pose a serious challenge. He wants to hold the election when they are divided.
7. Senior Likud sources believe that former prime minister Ehud Olmert will still be in court next October, but why take chances? Netanyahu’s people stressed that Olmert is a minor consideration, but they also called a potential comeback by him “a game-changer.”
It would be wise to hold elections now when he is still on trial in the Holyland scandal and an appeal of his acquittal in the Talansky Affair is about to be filed by the State Attorney’s Office.
8. Oh, yeah. The budget. This was the reason given publicly for initiating elections. It is not as important as the first seven reasons, but it is a factor.
There are those who argue that delaying the election is bad for the economy because it means the budget passed in December 2010 could remain in place for two-and-a-half years.
But Treasury officials are smart.
They already raised the valueadded tax, which will make millions for the government’s coffers.
Populist benefits promised by the Finance Ministry to various sectors will only take effect in the next budget once it passes. That’s what economists call “fiscal responsibility.”
9. When he appeared to initiate an election in May, Netanyahu said he could no longer put up with his coalition partners’ threats to violate coalition discipline and act increasingly independently.
That’s still true – not only with Shas and Barak on the budget.
Netanyahu was worried that Yisrael Beytenu would pick a fight with United Torah Judaism on drafting yeshiva students. And whoever wins the November 6 Habayit Hayehudi primary race could flex his political muscles, especially it it is Naftali Bennett, whom Sara Netanyahu reportedly detests.
Better to go to an election now and preempt such behavior.
10. The prime minister regrets forming a short-lived nationalunity government in May. Had he initiated a September 4 election, he would have already received a vote of confidence, and he could have come to the UN General Assembly on Cloud Nine.
Netanyahu believes it is extremely important not to repeat mistakes.
That, after all, is one of the key lessons of history.