Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is hinting that he will hold Israel’s next election this year rather than waiting until 2013. Many analysts think that September or October are the most likely dates — before or after the High Holy Days. Polls suggest that could be a smart move; Netanyahu’s party is expected to do well though, as usual, no single party is likely to emerge from the election with enough seats in the Knesset to form a government on its own.
Also pushing Netanyahu toward elections: tension in his fractious coalition between religious and secular conservative parties. Like social conservatives and libertarians in the US, only in a much more polarized way, the right wing of the Israeli electorate includes very religious and very secular voters. The Christian right in the US is mostly focused on a small number of high profile issues like abortion. In Israel, the religious right has a much fuller and more encompassing view on how religion should shape the political agenda. Jewish law in all its complexity, many feel, should be the guiding principle in a Jewish state. The resulting issues go from how strictly should state entities observe the Sabbath to whether ultra-Orthodox students should be able to defer their military service indefinitely.
At the moment the draft is the hottest issue; secular Israelis, including key members of Netanyahu’s coalition, want to end or at least sharply curtail the special provisions that allow religious students to postpone or evade military service and are threatening to introduce legislation to that effect.
This makes Netanyahu’s job much tougher than that of a George W. Bush or a Mitt Romney. Holding the conservative coalition together in Israel requires a delicate balancing act that only very foolhardy or very surefooted politicians would try to pull off. It may be easier for Netanyahu to fight a general election than to resolve the coalition dispute without one.
Another reason the Israeli Prime Minister might prefer an election this year rather than next: if President Obama is re-elected and decides to resume his stalled effort to rebuild the peace process, Netanyahu will face pressure from Obama to make concessions during the Israeli campaign. If he makes concessions, he splits his own coalition; if he refuses, and relations with the US worsen as a result, his opponents can argue that Netanyahu’s hard line endangers Israel’s relationship with its most important ally.
Running now, when Obama has an election of his own to consider and is eager to avoid a breach with Israel for a variety of reasons, might neutralize the US issue during the race.
A thought for investors and others interested in the Iran issue: the Christian Science Monitor suggests that an early election would mean a reduced chance of an Israeli strike on Iran during the campaign; Netanyahu can run as a tough defender of the national interest but will not have to defend what might turn out in practice to be a messy and controversial military strike. That makes a certain amount of sense, and it fits with the observation many analysts make that Israel is unlikely to strike Iran while international talks on the nuclear program are under way. If this line of thought is correct, and early elections are called, then the chances for a war in the Persian Gulf this summer will drop dramatically — and that might just help oil prices come down a bit as well.
It’s against the background of looming elections that we ought to weigh statements from various Israeli ex-officials and leaders about Iran and the prospects of an Israeli nuclear strike: the campaign season has begun, and parties are positioning themselves around the hottest issue in Israeli politics. Overall, the foreign policy issues in the campaign tend to favor the incumbent. Between the Arab Spring and Iran, Israelis feel jumpy and an incumbent hawk probably feels like the safety play for many voters. Netanyahu can be counted on, they will reason, to stand up for Israel against its enemies; on the other hand, he has managed to steer the country through tumultuous times without, so far, a major blow up.
The series of statements from ex-officials and defense personnel attacking Netanyahu on Iran, whatever their merits from a policy perspective (and Via Meadia doesn’t see the secret intel until Julian Assange publishes it on Wikileaks), make sense as a political strategy. Having high profile military brass denounce civilian leaders as hot headed bunglers helps rally Israel’s demoralized left and might pull centrist voters away from Likud and its allies.
In any case, that is what life is like in Israel: a fractious and contentious nation of immigrants (alongside a 20 percent Arab minority) with an electoral law that encourages the formation of tiny parties that can then blackmail prime ministers with threats to blow up the governing coalition. Surrounded by hostile and, these days, unstable neighbors, subject to occasional rocket fire and attempted terror attacks across its frontiers, worried about Iran, Israel has plenty of domestic issues to worry about also.
There are many things that Israel gets wrong and many more things that it could do better. But those critics who accuse the country of undemocratic behavior get it exactly wrong. Both Israel’s virtues and its vices proceed out of the life of one the healthiest and most tumultuous democracies in the world.