Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday evening that he will be bringing forward the next general elections to early 2013.
He did not specify a date, but said he would go to the polls “as soon as possible” and spoke of a “three-month campaign” — which could mean as soon as January 2013. “I seek a renewed mandate from the people to continue to lead the state of Israel,” he said.
He said his government, which was about to mark four years in office, had been “the most stable in decades.” It had made impressive achievements in the fields of security — including deployment of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, and progress on the Israel-Egypt border fence — and on the economy, even in the midst of a global financial crisis.
But there was still much work to be done — including thwarting Iran’s nuclear drive, defending Israel’s borders from terror and infiltration, maintaining Israel’s regional peace accords, protecting Israel’s interests in peace efforts with the Palestinians, and nurturing the economy, Netanyahu said.
“At this time it is not possible to pass a responsible budget” to meet those goals, he said, because in the course of his various consultations in recent days it had become clear that too many parties were putting narrow party interests ahead of the national interest.
If he were to capitulate to their demands, the budget would massively increase the national deficit, he said, plunging Israel into the kind of economic crisis now facing several European nations. “I won’t let that happen here.”
“It is my obligation as prime minister to put the national interest above all else,” Netanyahu said, and therefore he was calling elections “as soon as possible.” A “three-month campaign” would be much better than an economically damaging year-long drift toward elections, he said. “Therefore, after four years, we’ll go to elections.”
Netanyahu was voted into office in elections held on February 10, 2009, and his government was sworn in on March 31.
Netanyahu also used the appearance to express solidarity with residents of the south of Israel, battered by rocket attacks in recent days.
Advancing the elections from their scheduled date next October obviates Netanyahu’s need to pass a budget for 2013 before the vote, analysts noted. If reelected, the prime minister would presumably receive the electoral validation and coalition legitimacy to implement deep budgetary cuts to bolster Israel’s economy in an increasingly shaky climate — without the need to compromise in order to keep his coalition partners in line in an election year.
A senior Likud source said that attempts to pass a new annual budget had been “few” and half-hearted. “They failed,” he said, “and no one really wants to fight over the budget.”
Reelection would also give Netanyahu a fresh mandate to continue his tough stance toward Iran’s nuclear program.
After presiding over a remarkably stable coalition for nearly four years, the prime minister has little incentive to wait a few extra months when the cards seem stacked in his favor, analysts said. Early elections could curb the rise of Labor and its chair Shelly Yachimovich — she has been steadily gaining popularity in recent months — as well as halting the momentum of wild-card candidate Yair Lapid, a former TV news presenter set to run for the first time.
Yachimovich on Tuesday said elections were long overdue, charging that Netanyahu’s policy over the past four years had led to a “violent jungle economy.”
“The country has actually been in the midst of an election campaign for the past six months, which is an unhealthy and unstable situation that must be ended soon,” Yachimovich said on her Facebook page. “The public must bear in mind that Netanyahu is calling elections in order to afterward pass a cruel, harsh budget that will negatively impact the lives of almost all Israeli citizens — all but the very rich.
“The public will have to decide between two approaches — mine and Netanyahu’s,” she said.
Opinion polls consistently point to another Netanyahu victory if elections are held in the near future, with his Likud party set to slightly increase its Knesset representation from its current 27 seats. The Labor party (13 seats in the 2009 elections) is set to gain ground, most polls show, with Kadima (28 seats in 2009, the largest party) heading for a drastic fall.
Surveys indicate that Netanyahu would have numerous options for putting together a majority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset.
In a discussion among political analysts on Army Radio last week, the consensus was that Netanyahu would be returned as prime minister, though possibly with a slightly different coalition. It was noted that Yachimovich has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition despite their differences on socioeconomic affairs and on how to tackle Israeli-Palestinian relations, provided she would have a central role in socioeconomic policy. And neither has new would-be political player Lapid, the son of former minister Yosef Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party will be running in elections for the first time.
Another potentially relevant political player, the analysts noted, is former Shas party chairman and minister Aryeh Deri, who has said he wants to return to politics, having served jail time for fraud and other offenses. If Deri sets up a new party, he might draw votes away from Shas, and might be more inclined than Shas to join a centrist, Labor-led coalition, the analysts said. But they also noted that Deri is rebuilding his relationship with Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and might return to politics with Shas.
Analyst Raviv Drucker said in the discussion that former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni was being wooed by Yachimovich as a possible Labor No. 2, and that internal polls suggested this might boost Labor’s Knesset standing. But he noted that Livni has made no decision on a return to politics, having lost the Kadima leadership to Mofaz earlier this year.
Last week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak met in the US with Livni. Polls suggest Barak, who broke away from Labor and set up the Independence party in order to stay in the coalition, may have a hard time clearing the 2% threshold for Knesset representation.
Netanyahu was set to call early elections in May, but instead forged a short-lived coalition partnership with Kadima, under its new leader Shaul Mofaz.
Netanyahu will have to organize primaries within his own Likud party, to choose its Knesset slate in the coming weeks. Within the Likud, a bitter battle is anticipated between the party’s hawks and doves for prominence on the list of Knesset candidates.