Will Netanyahu use the migrants controversy to call an election?

When it comes to migrants, Netanyahu is weighing fight or flight.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A stressful situation can trigger a “fight or flight” response in people and other mammals, a “near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses [that] helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety,” according to the Harvard Medical School website.
The body can overreact to non-life-threatening situations, “such as persistent worry about losing a job,” the site says.
This fight-or-flight dilemma is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been facing lately over the African-migrant issue.
Should he try to fight against the Supreme Court overturning the policy his political base favors? Or should he escape, using it as an excuse to call an election?
Last week, Netanyahu chose flight, and this week, signs show he may go that way once again.
When the prime minister announced that he reached an agreement with the Office of the UN High Commission for Refugees to keep half of the Eritrean and Sudanese migrants in Israel, and have the other half absorbed in other countries by the UNHCR, his base exploded. He was attacked from the Right by members of his own party, and even worse, as far as Netanyahu is concerned, by Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett. Even Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon, considered to be more of a moderate, said the plan was too weak.
The general right-wing criticism of the plan is that it would leave too many migrants who are not recognized as refugees living in Israel, specifically in the poorer neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv.
So Netanyahu put the agreement on hold within hours, and the next morning he announced the plan is off. Now, it seems, the focus is on deporting as many migrants as possible.
The problem – aside from the moral issues – is that the Supreme Court overturned the government’s earlier plan to deport all single male adult migrants this month, citing poor efforts to check the applications of those who seek refugee status, and third countries, like Rwanda, not properly absorbing them upon arrival.
BUT THIS coalition is nothing if not creative. The parties want to bring back an old workaround passed by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government for Shas in 1993, when the Supreme Court overturned the law against breeding pigs, a non-kosher animal, saying it violates Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation. An article was included in the Basic Law that says “a provision of a law that violates freedom of occupation shall be of effect... if it has been included in a law passed by a majority of the members of Knesset... Such law shall expire four years from its commencement.”
In short, if a law violates Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation, the Knesset can vote it back in as a temporary measure.
Kahlon says he would agree to a narrow version of the workaround that would only apply to the migrant issue.
Opponents of judicial activism have sought to pass such a provision that would apply to all Supreme Court rulings canceling laws, and, in fact, there is such a bill submitted to the Knesset by Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich, which Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked are trying to promote.
But Netanyahu clearly doesn’t want to be attacked from the Right by Bennett yet again, on the same issue, so he wants to bring his own bill. The prime minister has stopped similar Supreme Court-circumventing bills more than once in the past, but this time, Netanyahu needs to look right-wing, or he’ll suffer electorally.
So after days of considering that provision, Netanyahu and the Likud decided to take it a step further, and now want to take away the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn laws in the first place.
Looking right-wing enough is a major concern for Netanyahu, because now is a convenient time for him to call an early election, and the migrant issue is a handy excuse.
As a senior minister said Wednesday: “I think he wants an election. When he wants the broad workaround provision, it ensures Kahlon will oppose it... and then he’ll have someone to blame. It’s another reason for an election, together with the [haredi] conscription and conversion bills,” which are on the agenda for the coming months and a cause for coalition infighting.
Why would Netanyahu want to call an election now? The same reasons he tried to disperse the Knesset when the issue was haredi enlistment in the IDF, but was foiled by his coalition partners.
The prime minister hopes to be reelected before Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit makes a decision on the cases in which the police recommended Netanyahu be indicted on corruption charges. In a few months, the situation can drastically change.
The timing is also good for Netanyahu, because there are currently big security issues on the public agenda, regarding Iran and Syria, which usually play to his favor, politically.
So between fighting to deport migrants, or running away from his problems in hopes of getting a boost of encouragement from the voting public, the scales look like they’re tipping toward the latter, while making it look like he’s doing the former.