Nobody seems to want early elections, so why are we having them?
News analysis

Nobody seems to want early elections, so why are we having them?

Most insiders blame Netanyahu and Liberman’s power struggle over national service. Others cite the budget, Obama and Iran. Was it all just a big misunderstanding?

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman pictured in the Knesset in 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman pictured in the Knesset in 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

When it emerged that Israel is heading for premature elections, the million-dollar question was when exactly the poll would be held. Some wanted it as soon as possible, others wanted to wait until after the High Holidays — but the fact that the country is not holding on for the election’s original date, October 22, 2013, was somehow taken for granted.

Why? As Israel prepares for a short but intensive election campaign – the vote will apparently take place on September 4, two weeks before Rosh Hashana – the question of what led the prime minister to dissolve a relatively stable coalition somehow fell by the wayside.

It is no secret that most, if not all MKs were against the decision. “Early elections are a mistake,” Minister Benny Begin (Likud) said, becoming the first senior cabinet member to speak out on the issue but certainly not the only one to feel dismay. Earlier, MK Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas) had said that if the Knesset held a secret ballot, 118 of the 120 MKs would vote against early elections.

Einat Wilf during a session of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem in 2010. (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Einat Wilf during a session of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem in 2010. (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

The two odd men out would ostensibly be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, as they are seen as responsible for the decision to head to the polls early.

Most analysts see the debate over the Tal Law — which enabled yeshiva students to defer army service but was struck down by the courts as unconstitutional — as the key factor behind the new elections.

Haaretz called the Tal Law controversy the “official pretext” for the early elections, but there are other issues as well. Some MKs told The Times of Israel that they suspect a mere “misunderstanding” between Netanyahu and Liberman caused the rush to elections.

“I’m not sure whether it’s a game of chicken that spun out of control or if it was a bored media just trying to get some action going,” said MK Einat Wilf (Atzmaut). “I have no idea where [the idea of new elections] came from. It just seems to have come out of nowhere and for no good reason.”

‘We didn’t table a law to dissolve the Knesset, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin did that,’ Liberman said

“A week ago, this was not really on the agenda and there was no sense of imminent crisis or unsolvable problems,” she told The Times of Israel. “With elections it’s just like with wars: It’s easy to start them but you never know how you are going to emerge from them. There are so many benefits for going to elections at the proper time. It also sends an important message for the future. Ministers in their offices are able to be more effective the more time they’re there. It’s a shame, not to speak of the waste of money. More than that, the Israeli public doesn’t understand why we’re going to elections.”

Wilf is unhappy about early elections, because according to most polls her party is not going to make it to the next Knesset. But even MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, concurs.

“It’s wrong; we shouldn’t have gone to elections,” he told The Times of Israel on Thursday. “There is no real reason to go to elections.”

Likud MK Danny Danon, on the other hand, seems to be neither surprised nor upset about the prospect. “It’s been three and half years, that’s a long time. Previous governments were much shorter, and if we weren’t going to elections now, it would have happened in January, and four years is a long time.”

Danon agrees with those who say the elections were brought about by a power struggle between Netanyahu and Liberman over the Tal Law. What is behind that claim?

‘Everybody suspects the other one of planning to do something and so they feel they have to preempt. As a result everybody loses’

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court struck down the Tal Law, which expires on August 1. Yisrael Beytenu had proposed a bill to replace the law, which would have all Israelis either serve in the army or in alternative national service. In a television interview on Saturday, Liberman threatened to bring down the coalition if the bill isn’t passed on the day it is being discussed, May 9. “Our obligations to the coalitions are over,” he said in a television interview.

Yisrael Beytenu politicians, however, say that all their chairman was doing was threaten that in a case where the government wouldn’t support the bill, the party would push it through with the help of the opposition.

Liberman himself rejects all accusations that he brought the government’s demise over an issue on which there is a consensus among all Zionist parties (after all, Netanyahu repeatedly promised to replace the Tal Law with a new law that would have everybody serve).

“We didn’t table a law to dissolve the Knesset. [Coalition chairman and Likud MK Zeev] Elkin did that,” Liberman said during a press conference Thursday, adding that his preferred date for elections is still October 2013. “I agree, the Tal Law is no reason to dissolve the Knesset, and we never asked for that. Yet we’re also not against it, if the coalition agrees to go for early elections.”

Bar-Ilan University Prof. Shmuel Sandler, who focuses on electoral politics in Israel, also isn’t sure how early elections came about so suddenly. The prime minister must have suspected his foreign minister of pushing for new elections, or vice versa, and before you know it, we’re having new elections, he suggested.

“Somehow we entered into an election atmosphere, and it developed into a some sort of prisoner’s dilemma game: Everybody suspects the other one of planning to do something and so they feel they have to preempt. And as a result, everybody loses,” Sandler said.

Was it perhaps, as some pundits suggested, a clash of egos between the two senior leaders? Tamir Sheafer, a Hebrew University professor who focuses on the role of charisma in politics and the media’s role in Israeli political campaigns, doesn’t think so.

“If you look at the history of this coalition, ego issues didn’t not play a big role,” he said. “Liberman did not like some of the policies enacted by this coalition, and at least some of the promises that he received as part of the coalition agreement were not fulfilled. But still, he always said that none of this was important enough to dismantle the coalition and go for early elections. Apparently, until now ego did not play a big role and I don’t think it’s a good enough explanation.”

Indeed, Sheafer said he and several colleagues wondered together about the real reasons behind the early election, but nobody could find a good answer.

MK David Rotem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK David Rotem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“When a prime minister is having a rather stable coalition, he has no incentive to call for early elections. And right now, Netanyahu is having a stable coalition,” Sheafer said. “If he foresaw problems regarding the Tal Law, then I don’t understand why he didn’t present a proposal of his own and let Shas leave the coalition. That would have worked for him in the coming elections.”

But according to Rotem, who authored Yisrael Beytenu’s bill to replace the Tal Law, Netanyahu didn’t want to the coalition to crash as a consequence of its Haredi partners jumping ship in opposition to Rotem’s bill.

“The Likud was suddenly afraid because they know how to count,” Rotem said, adding that Shas and the Haredi United Torah Judaism party would have rather left the coaltion than let Netanyahu pass Yisrael Beytenu’s bill. Rather, Rotem said, Netanyahu wanted to dissolve the Knesset before the bill comes up for a vote, to avoid the embarrassment of a failed government and to create the impression that the Likud is control of things.

To be sure, there are other factors as well that might have been conducive to an atmosphere of new elections. Some analysts said the government didn’t want to bother with having to pass a two-year budget if elections are scheduled a year from now. Others say last year’s cost-of-living demonstrations might flare up again this summer and that this spirit of social justice put the Knesset in the mood for new elections.

‘People in general don’t want elections. It’s a waste of public money and people presume there won’t be a big change anyway’

Sandler, the political scientist, said that the American elections this November could have played a role, too. “Netanyahu wants to be reelected before [US President Barack] Obama is reelected. Let’s assume that Obama is reelected: Netanyahu’s opponents could then say that the administration doesn’t like him” and thus suggest the Israeli people better vote for a leader who’s on better terms with the country’s most important ally.

It’s not clear how much influence the US president really has on Israeli politics, Sandler added, but there there are precedents, such as 1992, when US president George Bush pressured prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and thus helped Yitzhak Rabin to the premiership.

Kadima MK Otniel Schneller said that neither the Tal Law nor the budget are good enough reasons for the coaltion to be dissolved. “These are all excuses — it’s such a strong government, it’s not supposed to be so difficult to deal with these questions,” he told The Times of Israel.

Rather, Schneller said he believes that the country’s leadership is getting positioned for upcoming foreign policy challenges, such as a potential strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and a resumption of US pressure on Israel to resume peace talks with the Palestinians once Obama is reelected. A newly elected Israeli government, based on a strong and broad coalition, would be assured that its decisions are sanctioned by a majority of Israeli society, according Schneller. “Now is the right time to prepare everything for all the options,” he said.

Never mind the real reasons behind new elections, the fact is that what is coming up are elections nobody really wanted — neither the politicians who on Sunday will initiate the proceedings to dissolve the current Knesset, nor the voters. As Sandler put it: “People in general don’t want elections. It’s a waste of public money. And people presume there won’t be a big change anyway.”

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