Vote Early, Vote Bibi?


Tel Aviv — With polls giving him a big lead over a fractured opposition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the odds-on favorite in Israel to win re-election if the Knesset decides to hold elections a year ahead of schedule at the end of the summer.

After months of denying speculation that he was mulling moving up a vote from October 2013, Netanyahu said early this week he would be discussing possible dates with party leaders.

The prime minister reportedly wants to hold a vote as early as possible — dates of August and September are being kicked around — to ensure that Shaul Mofaz, who recently ousted Tzippi Livni as Kadima leader, doesn’t have a chance to close the gap. Though early elections seem to have become a forgone conclusion in Israel, no final decision has been made just yet.

Analysts believe that despite likely coasting to victory, Netanyahu’s next government may be more flexible on peace compromises than the current hard-line coalition.

That’s because polls suggest that the bloc of right-wing and religious parties is poised to shrink, giving several medium-sized, center-left parties a chance to wield influence in the coalition.

“He’s liable to head a more moderate government. … It will probably affect the peace process,” said Zaki Shalom, a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s National Institute for Security Studies. “Netanyahu will have a variety of choices to make, and he will not be reliant on right-wing parties like he is now.”

Shalom said that the prime minister may choose to bring in the Labor Party, the Kadima Party — which polls predict will shrink by half — and a new party headed by Yair Lapid.

Hebrew University political science professor Avraham Diskin said that for the first time, early elections seem a more likely prospect than the originally scheduled date. He sees an erosion of the right-wing alliance of parties in the Knesset.

“There is a misinterpretation. Public opinion polls look promising for Netanyahu, but really are not that promising,” Diskin said. “Netanyahu is the most popular [leader], but that doesn’t matter if the right-wing parties lose the majority. Then it’s a whole different ballgame. Netanyahu is doing well personally, and his party is doing well as well. But the bloc is at risk. So [calling for early elections] is sort of a gamble.”

In the past, new elections have put the peace process with Israel’s Arab neighbors on hold, but with negotiations mothballed for more than a year and a half, such a move will have little impact.

Instead, many observers contend that Israel’s election campaign is likely to be waged amid a lull in anxiety about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran. For the time being, the urgency for a strike against Iran’s nuclear program seems to have diminished.

Ronen Bergman, a senior political and military analyst for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, said that Israel has been pleasantly surprised by the impact of sanctions imposed by Europe and the U.S. on Iran’s banking system.

“There are new winds and openings for hope. There has been an implementation of much more severe, stronger sanctions from the U.S. and the European community and from private firms,” he said. “If these sanctions had been imposed two or three years ago, it would have been a very different situation.”

What’s more, recent criticism by security chiefs of the prime minister’s hints of a preemptive strike seems to be having a chilling effect in Israel, say observers.

When former Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin said last Friday that such an attack would backfire and that he had no confidence in the prime minister to handle such a conflict, he joined a growing front of defense establishment professionals who have taken issue with the prime minister’s portrayal of the conflict with Iran.

“Now there’s going to be more criticism of an attack. If Diskin and [Former Mossad Chief Meir] Dagan say this, it weakens the government,” said Itzik Levy, a 40-year-old taxi driver. “They all held key positions. They can’t be dismissed as if they’re simpletons from the street.”

While Diskin’s statement was assailed by Netanyahu’s allies as politically motivated, such warnings resonate with the Israeli public and are likely to deter the prime minister before getting a fresh vote of confidence at the ballot box, said a Likud activist.

“[Netanyahu] needs to take these remarks with caution,” said Shlomo Madmon, a member of the Likud Party central committee. “If he attacks on his own without the international community, he won’t be able to reach the point where Israel can win decisively… That would be a terrible mistake, and it would hurt Bibi and the party.”

Though much of the campaign is expected to focus on socioeconomic issues like last year’s tent protests over housing costs and the general high cost of living in Israel, as well as over a reform of the military draft exemption for the fervently Orthodox, Netanyahu’s vigilance about a nuclear Iran is likely to figure prominently in his campaign because it plays to his strength as a security hawk, said one former aide.

“Talking about Iran serves two things — he believes it’s a danger for the world, but it’s also about the politics of fear,” said Aviv Bushinksy, a former spokesperson for Netanyahu during his first term. “It serves his agenda to gain power from the [Iranian] threat.”

On the other hand, Bushinksy said, holding early elections will make it less likely that the prime minister would order a preemptive attack on Iran because it risks igniting a regional war that could endanger Netanyahu’s popularity.

“Netanyahu knows that he enjoys a relatively high and stable popularity, and it’s a good time to [hold elections] when his rivals are seen as unprepared,” Bushinsky continued. “So why should he risk it by attacking? What if it fails? He doesn’t need to do something extreme to win the election.”

Other analysts take issue with the view that Netanyahu would allow political considerations to guide such a fateful decision.

Analyst Bergman said that although the upcoming election in Israel is another signal that there would not be a Israeli military strike in the coming months, “Israel’s decision on whether to strike or not is dictated not from the atmosphere and not from American or European promises, but is based on the Iranian project. And I don’t think the Iranians would agree to anything that would satisfy Israel.”