The Early Elections that Weren’t

This law was intended to launch the process of integrating more ultra-orthodox young men into the Israeli military, but in practice continued to provide them excessive numbers of exemptions. The court decided it was unjust, and ordered the government to provide redress, but at the time that Netanyahu decided to go to the ballot boxes, no crisis had materialized.

Since the only events anyone had been anticipating this summer were a renewal of the social protest and the possibility of an attack on Iran, the announcement of early elections came as a complete surprise. Pundits scrambled to explain it and rival party leaders were caught were the campaign plans down around their knees.

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Everyone agreed that Bibi had pulled off a masterstroke. Likud was polling high – 30 seats or more, and other than Shelly Yachimovich and the Labor Party, nobody else has a chance of getting near 20 seats.

Clearly Netanyahu would be the next prime minister, and could claim a new mandate to attack Iran. And he would have earned that mandate two months ahead of that fellow in the White House, who is also seeking another term in office, but who has less motivation to go to war with another Islamic state. Presumably, Obama might have been too worried about losing Jewish voters to came down hard on Israel to prevent any such assault.

But just while everyone was gearing up to replace summer protests and World War III with an election campaign, Netanyahu pulled yet another completely surprising rabbit out of his hat, in the form of newly elected Kadima leader and former defense minister and Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz. The deal was cut in the middle of the night, and shockingly, remained secret.

Mofaz’s willingness to go in with Netanyahu took the country by surprise because immediately after replacing Tzippy Livni as the head of Kadima, Mofaz promised that he would supplant Netanyahu as the next Prime Minister, swore he would never join the coalition, and called Netanyahu a liar on television, (which has now provided rich material for u-tube remixes of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Don’t Lie”). Mofaz, who watched Kadima’s numbers sink close to single digits in the polls, grabbed hold of the lifeline for himself and perhaps for his party, although don’t be surprised if Kadima folds itself back into the Likud later down the line.

Through this surprise move, Netanyahu strengthened his hand, avoided elections, and put himself in position to not be beholden to any single coalition partner, including Yisrael Beitenu and Avigdor Lieberman (who is likely to be indicted this summer on corruption charges) and created a huge coalition which would likely support his ambitions to challenge Iran if he chooses to do so.

Netanyahu also overcome his one point of vulnerability – the challenge by the extreme right wing of his party, who had wrested away control from him over the candidate list for the next primaries. The Prime Minister also brought back to the fold the more moderate ex-Likudniks who people the Kadima party, who perhaps can provide a counter-weight to the Likud’s extreme right wing.

Netanyahu achieved all this in exchange for almost nothing. Mofaz delivered his 28 mandates into the government coalition in exchange for the make-believe job of deputy prime minister, a few Knesset committee chairmanships, and vague promises both to institute governmental reform and replace the hated Tal law.

In the previous government constellation, the ultra-orthodox parties had the power to forestall mandated army service for their young men. In the current wall to wall coalition of 94 out of 120 Knesset seats, Netanyahu would have the numbers to pass such a law, even if both ultra-orthodox parties quit the coalition. It seems unlikely he would be willing to burn his bridges with the ultra-orthodox parties over draft exemptions  and it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu has the interest or the will to promote any kind of reform. Early indications suggest that the government is eager to suppress any revival of last summer’s social protest.

Netanyahu burnished his image as a master manipulator of the Israeli political system who can outflank, outfox and outwit his opposition, run rings around them, put them in his back pocket, eat them for lunch, and embody every other metaphor of outmaneuvering one can think of. In Israel, this is considered admirable for a politician, even if it boosts the level of national cynicism about politicians and exacerbates the level of alienation from government by our citizenry.

The Labor party, under Shelly Yachimovch, seemed poised to do well in the elections, and it remains to be seen how the election delay will affect the party. Just as Netanyahu might choose to rebrand the Likud by tilting it back to the center right, Labor, without the hawkish Ehud Barak at its head, may once again attempt to be a genuinely leftist party. These two shifts, if they continue, would restore something of the traditional order in Israeli politics. Labor is now the official leader of the opposition in the Knesset, and will try to strengthen its voice by presenting a genuine alternative vision. This has been lacking for the past three years, under the extremely weak opposition leadership of former Kadima head, Tzippi Livni, who has quit the Knesset.

The delay of the elections may slow down new political personality, Yair Lapid, a television talk show host, writer, columnist, actor and all around celebrity, who also had been polling well. Lapid’s entry into politics was dramatic – he resigned his position on a network news show to side-step pending legislation aimed specifically at him; the bill would have required a cooling off period for media news figures seeking to enter politics. Lapid’s new party is named Yesh Atid (There is a Future), and with the diminution of Kadima’s relevance, may be able to claim to be the only actual centrist party in the political arena.

Lapid’s decision produced a more problematic by-product, single-handedly aborting several nascent party organizing efforts emerging from the social protest, the sense being that with a new-look Labor party and Lapid both polling well (at least in some weeks), there was no more room in the field, and additional efforts would only splinter the anti-Likud forces further.

The questions now are whether leftist and liberal forces will be able to use the election delay to organize more effectively, and what use Netanyahu will make of his mega-coalition; to go to war or make peace, to institute economic, social or political reform, to expand settlements, or to sit tight and enjoy his perch of power.

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