Election time looms

All signs indicate that Israel will hold elections again in the next year. But the potential scenarios that will culminate in this happening vastly differ from one another - except for one thing: they are all cause for deep concern.

Netanyahu Barak 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Netanyahu Barak 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
You're probably thinking I'm insane or delirious for writing about the next elections.
You may have a point.
A major earthquake followed by nuclear reactor meltdowns in Japan, war in Libya, mayhem in Bahrain, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a monstrous act of terror in Itamar, the Palestinian Authority further gaining international support as a state-in-the-making and an arms ship intercepted in mid-sea. All serious events, and yet I found it appropriate to burden you with elections.
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I know many of you experienced withdrawal symptoms after the last elections and I'm sure many more of you feel cheated and deprived when politicians inform you that "elections will be held as scheduled, in 2013."
After all, we are used to 18-24 month election cycles and a new government every 2-3 years. It's not as if these governments really differ from one another fundamentally, but it allows us to brag that since 1949, we’ve had more governments than Italy. You have to admit that this is quite an achievement given that we don't have nearly as many problems or existential issues that those poor Italians have to face.
Unlike primitive and unsophisticated democracies like the US or the UK, we adamantly insist on two essential must-have ingredients: Frequent elections and at least 6 parties in any given coalition.
The four-year cycle and the two-party system (or at most, four) is reserved for sissies like the Americans, Brits, Germans or French. Here in Israel, we have the real thing.
To assuage people’s fears, I cautiously guestimate that Israel will hold elections within the next 10-12 months give or take.
Even those of you who crave elections are probably asking yourselves: Why? About what? What would precipitate these elections? I'll try and answer these questions in the most unbiased way I can.
The question of why is relatively easy to tackle. The government has no overt agenda, and governments with no coherent narrative or discernible goals that also fail to effectively prioritize issues, exhaust their policies quickly and usually bubble along for a few more wasteful months, all the while heavily hemorrhaging their political capital and credibility, before invariably ending up in another election. Whew. The traditional life cycle of an Israeli government dictates that in the first year they try and figure out what to do, the second year they actually attempt to govern and by the beginning of the third year they inexorably lose ground and traction, and before long they are hurtling towards elections again.
The about what? is more complicated. Logic tells us that the 2011/early 2012 elections will be about the socio-economic situation, real estate prices, the comprehensive impoverishment of the middle class and a growing sense that the country lacks both direction and purpose. But there is political logic and then there is Israeli electoral political logic, usually defined by events and perceptions pertaining to security and the region.Israelis have developed a cognitive dissonance of sorts; they behave as if the status-quo characterized by Israel's defense and its foreign policies (including policies with regards to the Palestinians) is both acceptable and sustainable. This logic asks, why rush? The region is in turmoil, the uncertainties abundant, stability imperiled, the Palestinians are not serious interlocutors and anyway, Iran marches on with its nuclear arms quest.
On the other hand, Israelis are apprehensive and insecure about the future. They intuitively know that while panaceas are pipedreams, this government is certainly not the solution. Going one step further, this government may actually be part of the problem. One might object and say that Israel's abject international standing, sour relations with the Obama administration, loss of allies such as Turkey, neighbors like Egypt teetering on the abyss, lack of coherent Palestinian policy, and a significant loss of regional maneuvering-room may not all be the government's fault. And in fact, they aren’t. Yet it all happened under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's watch.
There are three different scenarios that provide an answer to the last question of what events would precipitate elections.
The first is the pundits' favorite, and involves Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He disrespects Netanyahu profoundly, and sees himself as the heir apparent of the right-wing and even the center-right, while awaiting an indictment on various charges. This indictment is pending a hearing. So Lieberman, all too cognizant that the government is unpopular and that Netanyahu is susceptible to pressures and counter-pressures, knows he needs to capitalize before a hearing. If the Attorney-General does in fact decide to indict, that gives Lieberman roughly six months in which he can precipitate the fall of the government.
The second scenario is Shas. The party’s leader Eli Yishai is under intense criticism that he reneged on Shas' mandate, and the conventional wisdom is that he failed as Interior Minister. But the case of Shas’ former leader, Aryeh Deri, is perhaps more alarming. Polls suggest that with Deri running as an independent party - with or without Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's support - Shas will be cut in half. Therefore, Yishai needs to minimize the time Deri has to prepare for elections. Like Lieberman, Yishai has also arrived at the conclusion that elections can’t hurt since the current government has exhausted its usefulness.
The third scenario is perhaps the most intriguing. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Ehud Barak, the Defense Minister, are aware of Lieberman's and Yishai's strategic calculations, but are more concerned with observing the changing attitudes surrounding opposition leader, Tzipi Livni. Polls consistently lend the Kadima leader a substantial edge and Barak and Netanyahu are wary of her discernible status as Prime Minister in waiting.
Innocently concealed within this scenario is the possibility that they will run together in some form of an ad-hoc bloc that boasts "stability and experience."Barak has been eloquent in his recent criticism directed at the Prime Minister, warning against a diplomatic "tsunami" come September. The tsunami will be the culmination of a fractured coalition, the absence of a bold and creative initiative and Israel’s increased isolation in the world.
Barak will warn Netanyahu that he is facing a death by a thousand cuts. Now is the time to combine three elements: Warn of the dangerous fluidity in the region, introduce a peace plan (the so-called Bar Ilan 2 speech) and reach an understanding with the US on increasing Israel's security. Barak insinuated as much when he told The Wall Street Journal last week that Israel may ask the US for $20 Billion to elevate its qualitative edge.
The two will then posit that the Middle East has become an even worse neighborhood and that a new mandate is needed to devise a policy of     patience, caution, gradualism and above all, security. They will contend that now is not the time to experiment with inexperience. This ploy will catch Lieberman, Yishai and Livni off guard and the Israeli electorate -albeit unenthusiastic and disillusioned with both gentlemen - is likely to buy into the sales pitch.
Am I sure that this is what will happen? No. But the evidence supporting it is mounting.
More significantly, it’s been far too long since our last elections.
The writer is a diplomat who recently served as consul-general in New York.