For Netanyahu, a reelection campaign with an eye to Washington — and Tehran

In a local field devoid of competition, PM is timing elections, in good part, to give him freedom to tackle Iran without being bullied by the White House

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with US President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, last March (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with US President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, last March (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations last month, it seemed almost certain that he would call for new elections early in 2013. Hardly anyone believed that he was able — or willing — to make much of an effort to pass a budget for the coming year, and the fact that he placed a “red line” for Iran by “next spring, at most by next summer,” and not, as previously stated, by this fall, signaled that he was seeking fresh legitimization from the Israeli electorate.

If Netanyahu is reelected — and while the polls leave little doubt that he will win a second straight term, nothing is quite certain with Israel’s volatile electorate and unpredictable regional challenges — he can proceed with whatever plans he has regarding a preemptive strike on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities. Indeed, buoyed by an election victory and with the US elections well behind him, Netanyahu would have a much freer hand to act in the Iranian arena than he would have had this fall. And preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Netanyahu’s confidants claim, is his political raison d’être.

Political analysts also say that Netanyahu is rushing to the polls in January to avoid trouble with Washington regarding peace talks with the Palestinians. If US President Barack Obama loses the November 6 election, he will be a lame duck president until Mitt Romney is inaugurated on January 20, 2013. In the past, outgoing US leaders have spent their last months in office trying desperately to push Israelis and Palestinians to settle their differences and sign an agreement. If, however, Israel is in the middle of an extremely brief election campaign this winter, no US president will seriously expect Netanyahu to try to sit down with Abbas to rekindle a deadlocked peace process, especially not one that has been lying barren for most of the four years Netanyahu has been in office.

Netanyahu knows he’s not surprising anybody by calling for early elections, but he also doesn’t need to. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who might have mulled another run at the premiership, probably won’t be ready in time for January elections. The same is likely true of ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is also planning a comeback but has not made much headway in getting organized. Besides Olmert and Livni, there is no one who can seriously challenge Netanyahu for the top job, even though Labor’s leader Shelly Yachimovich claimed Tuesday she has a “reasonable” shot at it. Labor is set to grow because of its credibility on socioeconomic issues, but it sorely lacks a leading security figure in its top leadership — an ex-general with clout and gravitas.

Indeed, all recent polls predict a large majority for the prime minister’s Likud party, which can expect to gain one seat, and, with 28 mandates, become the Knesset’s largest party. In the current Knesset, the Likud lags behind Kadima, but in 2013 Shaul Mofaz’s centrist party will be nearly wiped out by the voters, surveys indicate. Out of the party’s current 28 seats, merely a handful will remain, according to the pollsters’ forecasts.

Of course there will be new players on the block, such as television anchorman-turned-politician Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party and other yet-to-created and yet-to-be announced lists. But one thing is already all but certain: The center-right bloc currently governing Israel will also dominate the 19th Knesset.

Over the last few days, Netanyahu has been meeting with the heads of the factions that currently form the coalition, and while things in the center could shift dramatically — with some Kadima voters migrating to Yesh Atid and a revitalized Labor party — the picture on the right will likely remain more or less the same.

The nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party swings between 14 and 16 Knesset seats in the polls, indicating that Avigdor Liberman could well remain foreign minister. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party is likewise expected to retain its 11 mandates, which likely means that Eli Yishai is safe in the Interior Ministry. What happens with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, however, is still unclear, as his tiny Atzmaut (Independence) party may not make it into the Knesset come Election Day.

What’s ahead in the coming weeks? Even before Netanyahu took the stage Tuesday evening to announce what he considers his government’s stellar achievements in the fields of security and the economy, the campaign season was already in full swing. And just seconds after the prime minister’s announcement, opposition head Mofaz slammed the government for its perceived failures, offering his Kadima party as the only alternative.

This coming Monday, when the Knesset returns from its 81-day recess and enters the winter session, Netanyahu will try to push through a bill that will dissolve the current Knesset and set new elections within three months. Once the Knesset is dissolved, a transition government takes over, which means that Netanyahu can more or less rule as he pleases for a while. All legislative work will grind to a halt, bills will be frozen, and the only people working in the Knesset will likely be those MKs with little chance of reelection clearing out their offices.

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