So it turns out that all the rumours and speculation were accurate, and Israel is set to go to the polls in a general election some time in January.
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.”
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.
The timing of the elections is speculated to be with one eye towards Washington and the other towards Tehran:
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.
As soon as new elections were announced, the usual political horse-dealing began immediately:
Among the speculation was a possible return to politics by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who some believe could revitalize a fragmented and shrinking Left.
Speaking with Army Radio Wednesday morning, former Kadima minister Haim Ramon said he is in discussions with former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni about the formation of a new political party. He added, however, that Olmert has not yet made a decision on whether to return to politics.
MK Dalia Itzik (Kadima) also said on Wednesday she would like to see Olmert return to politics – in contrast with Likud ministers, who are promoting an initiative to prevent his participation in the upcoming elections.
Ramon discounted Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz as the head of such a bloc, saying “I think Mofaz removed himself from being a possibility” when he joined Netanyahu’s coalition.
“As far as I’m concerned, Netanyahu will be replaced,” Ramon said. “We won’t make the same mistake that Mofaz made.”
Olmert was cleared of most of the charges against him in three of four corruption cases, and his conviction for breach of trust is not expected to be a legal obstacle to running.
He is still standing trial on bribery charges in the Holyland scandal, but his lawyers believe the prosecution’s case against him is weak.
Livni last week rebuffed overtures from Mofaz, who ousted her as chairwoman of Kadima, to rejoin the party.
Earlier last week, Channel 10 reported that Livni met with former Interior Minister and senior Shinui member Avraham Poraz to discuss the possibility of using his Hetz (Arrow) party in the next election.
Poraz founded Hetz in 2006, when he and 10 other MKs broke off from Shinui.
If Livni revives Hetz, she will save herself the bureaucratic headache of registering a new party. In addition, new parties may spend only NIS 13 million on an election campaign, but Livni will be able to increase the budget if she takes over Hetz.
Likud MK Tzippi Hotovely expressed the disgust of many Israelis at the thought of Ehud Olmert returning to politics:
If the “corrupt criminal” Ehud Olmert runs for office, citizens will have the chance “to give him the keys to house he broke into,” Likud Knesset Member Tzipi Hotovely said Wednesday morning.
“The candidacy of a criminal convicted for corruption in the government must be totally censured before the Left crowns him as their savior,” she added.
Olmert, who is the first and only Prime Minister to have been convicted for criminal charges, recently was given a surprisingly light sentence of a small fine and a suspended jail term. He was acquitted on even graver indictments.
The State Prosecutor is appealing the verdict, and a sentence of at least three months of community service or a jail term would prohibit him from returning to politics in the next seven years.
Another former prison inmate, former MK Aryeh Deri, is also expected to reenter politics, heading the powerful Shas party:
Aryeh Deri is expected to return to head the Shas party, Channel 2 News reported on Tuesday. The report came several hours after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that elections will be held in the coming months.
Deri is one of the founders of Shas and headed it through most of the 1980s and 1990s. During that period he was an icon to the Shas electorate for consolidating its welfare and educational achievements.
He was convicted of bribery and related charges in 1999 and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released due to good behavior after serving two-thirds of his sentence. Since his departure from politics, Shas has been headed by Eli Yishai who serves as Interior Minister in the present government.
Deri has hinted more than once that he intends to return to politics, but at one point announced that he will form a new party. Later reports indicated that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ spiritual leader, had offered the number three slot in the party’s list to Deri.
Deri, however, reportedly rejected that arrangement because he wants to be the party chairman. It is believed that if Deri were to form his own party he would be able to obtain many Knesset seats at the expense of Shas.
According to Tuesday’s report, Deri recently presented a compromise to Rabbi Yosef and the Council of Torah Sages of the Shas party and asked to be allowed to be Shas chairman. Eli Yishai would have the number two slot and would be the party’s chief minister.
Channel 2 News reported that the offer was accepted with great enthusiasm by Rabbi Yosef as well as by Shas’ current number two, Housing Minister Ariel Atias. Yishai has yet to announce whether he accepts the proposal, said the report, but pressure is mounting on him to step down as chairman of Shas.
Even though on a personal level I don’t feel the visceral disgust for Deri that I feel for Olmert, I think it’s shameful and terribly sad for the Israeli body politic that former criminals are not only allowed to enter politics but are feted on their return.
Israel needs electoral reform more urgently than ever before.