ANALYSIS: Netanyahu's election puzzle

The prime minister is navigating a complex web of issues to figure out when he wants the next elections to happen.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot for the parliamentary election as his son Yair stands behind him at a polling station in Jerusalem March 17, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS/SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot for the parliamentary election as his son Yair stands behind him at a polling station in Jerusalem March 17, 2015.
A headline in Israel Hayom on Sunday morning and a report on Channel 10 the night before raised expectations.
They predicted upcoming drama in Sunday’s weekly meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the heads of the parties in his coalition; they reported that Netanyahu would reveal if and when he wanted early elections to take place.
Perhaps by Sunday morning, everyone in the world would know whether Israel’s next Knesset election would take place in January 2019 – the earliest it could be – or November 2019, the latest.
Those hopes ended with two sentences, when Netanyahu met with Likud ministers before the heads of the parties in his coalition even arrived at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem for the weekly cabinet meeting.
“I hear there are those who want to know if there are elections, and if so, when,” Netanyahu told his Likud colleagues. “The answer is that there is no decision.”
After an announcement like that, it is no wonder that the two key figures for resolving the coalition crisis over haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription – Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’acov Litzman – did not even bother coming to that fateful meeting of coalition party heads.
Then again, perhaps Liberman and Litzman are so politically savvy that they did not need Netanyahu’s announcement. They know what Netanyahu is going to do just from their years of experience working with him, and they did not have to analyze his every word, like other ministers did, to figure him out.
One minister left the coalition party heads convinced Netanyahu would soon initiate elections, because he described only difficulties and not solutions. The minister found it interesting that along with conscription, Netanyahu singled out conversion as an issue that must be resolved.
The conversion issue is completely deadlocked and has been for more than a year. On one side, the haredi parties have advanced a bill that would give the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate a complete monopoly on conversions. On the other, Yisrael Beytenu has appealed the bill and the Reform and Conservative movements have frozen a Supreme Court case that could have eased conversion, as long as the bill does not advance.
Ministers received the impression that Netanyahu bringing up conversion is a nice way of saying what he cannot say: He is going to initiate an election whenever it is most convenient for him, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
Over the past year and a half, there have been instances when it appeared elections were on the way. But Netanyahu’s coalition partners prevented him from initiating them for their own political purposes.
They no longer have that will, nor that power. It is entirely in Netanyahu’s hands now.
So what is Netanyahu waiting for?
First of all, he must ensure that a new police chief, IDF chief of staff and Bank of Israel governor to his liking are appointed. The selection committee that oversees such appointments was just finalized Sunday.
Secondly, the municipal elections must be completed, because they have different agendas and parties than a national election and are too complicated to mix. The local races will be held October 30, but a runoff race will likely be held two weeks later in Jerusalem, a contest that is especially important to Netanyahu.
Last but not least, there are Netanyahu’s criminal investigations. He was questioned by police at length for the twelfth time at his Jerusalem residence on Friday. Only he and his lawyers truly know his current legal situation, but the progress of the cases will undoubtedly impact the timing for Israel’s next election.
So, meanwhile, expect more of what happened on Sunday: raising expectations and putting up with pre-election political procrastination.