Critical Currents: Why wait?

Those calling to postpone elections are understandably afraid of a Netanyahu victory - but prolonging the campaign period won't reduce that possibility.

The political system is moving toward early elections. The operative question today is not whether Israelis will go to the polls, but when and under what circumstances. Despite major efforts to delay the vote as much as possible, especially in moderate circles, it makes absolutely no sense to procrastinate any longer. Considerations of governance, as well as those of durable human security, leave no choice but to hold general elections as soon as practicable. Ehud Olmert's political career is over. Regardless of whether he is legally culpable of the charges against him, there is no doubt that publicly he has been tried and found guilty. The initiation of legislation to dissolve the Knesset provides tangible evidence of his complete loss of legitimacy. And, in no small measure due to the prime minister's insistence on forcing the issue by pressing the Labor Party this week, the outside possibility of replacing him with another candidate from Kadima does not exist. The electoral machine is moving into full swing. There are, nevertheless, many who are convinced that it is necessary to delay the inevitable as much as possible. Kadima, like any ruling party, is still desperately trying to cling to power. Many members of Knesset, scarcely two years in office, are bent on postponing their departure. Only the Likud, currently ahead in the polls, appears eager to enter the electoral fray. The reasons proffered for this widespread electoral reluctance are as convoluted as they are unconvincing. Predictably, they ostensibly revolve primarily around the diplomatic process with the Palestinians and with Syria. The momentum inherent in the renewal of talks supplies the first glimmer of hope in close to eight years. To abruptly cut off this avenue would be, so the reasoning goes, not only foolhardy, but in all probability a strategic mistake with dire long-term consequences. Hardly. However compelling at first glance, this line of argumentation is both specious and counterproductive. It presumes that it will be possible for Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas to reach an agreement of principles within the next few months, with the United States in the midst of a presidential campaign and the global economy in tatters. But Abbas has every reason to focus first on the consolidation of an internal Palestinian accord as expeditiously as possible as long as the cease-fire with Hamas is in effect (a move which would enable a more lasting settlement down the line). And even if he continues his discussions with Olmert - as there is every sign that he will - he lacks any impetus to conclude an accord. The political vagaries of Israel at the moment preclude signing an agreement with a palpably lame-duck leader. Should such an understanding, however improbable, be reached, it will not be embraced by the Israeli public. Olmert lacks any credibility whatsoever. Any deal he may strike will be perceived (and debunked) as a last-ditch effort to salvage his political skin. The damage he will leave behind would be well nigh irreparable: Attempts to carry through on its provisions would be forever tainted by the circumstances under which it was attained. By any logical marker, it is irresponsible to negotiate in these conditions. It is not possible to do so in good faith. AT ROOT, then, the advocates of a postponement are understandably afraid of a Binyamin Netanyahu victory. They have every reason to be. His militant pronouncements in the sensitive geopolitical reality of the region today are nothing short of alarming. When coupled with his dismal track record as prime minister and his retrogressive policies in the Finance Ministry, the prospect of his return to the helm is, to say the least, disheartening. But there is no reason to believe that prolonging the electoral campaign period would effectively reduce this likelihood. To the contrary: Netanyahu's rise to power in 1996, barely six months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, was facilitated by a similarly ill-conceived strategy. At the time Shimon Peres chose not to call for immediate elections under the misplaced assumption that he could consolidate his public position by staying out his predecessor's term. Such an approach backfired then and can boomerang today. If Netanyahu is going to win, he will do so later as well as sooner. But if he is challenged now - and if the polls are any indication - he, and the despondent future he represents, can still be defeated (not by Ehud Barak or Shaul Mofaz, but potentially by Tzipi Livni, who is heavily engaged in detailed discussions with her Palestinian counterparts). Israel is in the midst of one of the worst crises of governance in its history. Just at the moment when crucial decisions must be made on everything from the economy, social justice, conversion and education to the definition of its relations with its neighbors and hopefully their stabilization, it is plagued by a totally incapacitated government. This agony should not be prolonged more than absolutely necessary. To do so would be to invite untold danger. The citizens of Israel deserve better. It is in their power to determine the contours of their future - to punish the corrupt and the failed, to reject cynics and opportunists, to reward the judicious and the upstanding. If political weakness has become the major impediment to progress, then it can only be rectified at the ballot box. Democracies and democrats need not fear elections - the sooner the better.