We here in Israel are being deluged by news and analysis regarding what are most likely to be the elections coming in September. Although perhaps inevitable, this, in and of itself, is not a good thing. There is, after all, the business of government to attend to, to report on and to analyze.
Having said that, however, I would like to offer my own take on what many are saying:
Prior to the announcement about beginning the elections process, a struggle had ensued between the Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, which is a part of the coalition.
Lieberman has a reputation as a maverick, who speaks out as he sees fit.
The issue at hand in this instance was something known as the Tal Law, which provided military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox people who study in yeshivot. That law had just been shot down by the High Court and the question was what was going to happen next. There were those who insisted that all ultra-Orthodox would now have to serve, while many others saw it as essential that a new compromise bill — perhaps permitting exemptions in limited cases and requiring alternate national service for others who did not wish to go into the IDF — be brought forth. These are contentious issues, and Netanyahu was doing a balancing act — so as to not alienate the ultra-Orthodox.
( I will add that this has been the situation since the founding of the State, when Ben Gurion struck a deal with ultra-Orthodox parties in return for their political cooperation in other spheres.)
Lieberman, who is solidly for universal IDF service, became restive with the pace of what was happening and began to make noise about this. Some claim he threatened to break apart the coalition by leaving. He says he did not threaten this but was simply pushing for resolution of the issue.
Whatever the case, it was immediately following this that Netanyahu began to talk about elections. The conclusion drawn was that Netanyahu was showing Lieberman that he wouldn’t permit him to either challenge his authority or damage the coalition — he would, instead, dissolve the coalition and begin again. And so we’ve had comments such as, “Boy, did the prime minister one-up Lieberman!” and “This whole election thing is Lieberman’s fault.” There has been some near-hysterical analysis about how the prime minister let the quarrel with Lieberman get out of hand in a way that should never have happened.
My take is somewhat different:
I have referred to Binyamin Netanyahu as a savvy politician. He is that, but more: calculating and, on occasion, slick. The coalition has been stable until now because he has managed to put out fires and control situations. Had he wanted to control the Tal Law issue and retain his coalition in its present formulation I believe he would have found a way to do it.
What I think happened is that he looked around and saw all the benefits for himself and his party in holding elections now, and utilized the tensions inside the coalition as a rationale for doing so. I think he knows that he is now at the height of his popularity and didn’t want to risk losing that — he wanted to emerge even stronger than he is now.
I have referred already to some of the pending situations that he may have had in mind (I cannot see into his mind!) in making this decision.
One is contention with, and pressure from, Obama. Some people are speculating that Obama will be so busy with his own electioneering process that he will have less time to meddle in our election if it is held in September. (And make no mistake, the meddling would be an attempt to weaken Netanyahu.) Others project that should Obama win a second term — Heaven forbid — he would be less able to pressure Israel if Netanyahu was able to point out that the election has given him a new, stronger than ever, mandate to adhere to certain policies.
The other, of course, is the issue of taking on Iran. For this Netanyahu would hope for the strongest possible mandate from the people.
If indeed these are considerations of the prime minister, and if he seeks to act on behalf of the country with the greatest possible strength, then I am able to embrace the prospect of elections now.
(I do remain mindful of the possibility that matters might work the other way: That he might, for example, refer to his increased mandate as giving rationale and support for greater concessions for “peace.”)
Two factors within this electoral process loom before me as significant. The first is the question of lists for the election. Each party presents a list, with those on the list, in descending order, gaining seats in the Knesset according to the percentage of votes that party garners. The place on a list that a particular person secures is thus of critical importance. If, for example, Kadima is projected by the polls to win 10 seats in the election, then being placed 13th on the list offers dismal prospects for inclusion in the Knesset.
The Likud will have a primary for determination of its list (not every party works this way). It is not a cut and dried matter, but involves some very intense jockeying and political game-playing — with the head of the list, Binyamin Netanyahu, doing his best to exert control.
Those who have been members of the Likud party for a designated minimal period of time will be allowed to vote in the primaries. Since the last election, there has been an active attempt by right wing factions within Likud to get more people to join, precisely to this end. We now have to see how the Likud list evolves. Having Moshe Ya’alon, Ze’ev Elkins, Tzipi Hotovely, Danny Danon, etc. as Likud MKs makes a difference — and I am looking for, praying for, a preponderance of nationalists on the Likud list.
The other issue is the size and composition of the new coalition. Netanyahu might opt to rely to a good measure on nationalist / religious/ or right wing parties, or might move towards the significant inclusion of center/leftist parties such as Kadima. All of the talk about a stronger Likud and right wing Likud MKs may tempered by the nature of the full coalition — as demands of coalition members must be taken into account.
(Note here: a coalition must include at least 61 MKs. As Likud, while strong, will not remotely reach this number, Netanyahu will then be required to invite other parties to join the coalition. He might go with a narrow coalition, consisting primarily of parties that are in line to a significant degree with Likud policies, or he might offer to include a larger number of parties, akin to a “unity” situation, that includes parties at variance with Likud policies. In each instance a coalition agreement is drawn up. Positions on such matters as the legitimacy of communities in Judea and Samaria will be affected by this.)
Let me add, before closing, that I have read a legal opinion that the Tal Law will stay in effect, if the Knesset is dissolved this week, until after elections (and the formation of a new coalition).
What is more, certain business of the government will proceed — such as the projected new policy on Ulpana that the government is committed to bringing shortly to the High Court.
The Knesset can be convened for legislative matters on the signatures of 25 MKs but, at present, I remain unclear as to what will happen with legislation being proposed to alter government policy on “Palestinian land” and communities in Judea and Samaria. Can it proceed, or will it be frozen?
To be discovered in due course… Now my Shabbat preparations call to me.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.