Israel´s prime minister is considering early elections. Why the hurry? (GUARDIAN UK) Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem 05/04/12)
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Victory for Binyamin Netanyahu at the polls this summer could
strengthen his campaign for military action against Iran
Even the sombre news of the death of Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu´s highly influential father at the age of 102 could not
quell the febrile atmosphere in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset,
There was one topic of conversation among MKs, their aides and
political journalists at crowded canteen tables: the sudden almost-
certainty of a general election being brought forward from autumn
2013 to late summer this year.
"It´s all anyone is talking about," said Avishay Braverman of
Labour. "All the discussion is about the election, what the date will
be, who´s bluffing."
Once his seven-day period of mourning is over, Netanyahu is expected
to announce that Israel will go to the polls earlier than thought,
probably on 4 September. The Knesset is expected to be dissolved next
week, and all parties have already switched into campaigning mode.
It is not uncommon for Israeli prime ministers at the helm of its
typically fragile coalition governments to be forced to call
elections before their full term is up. What is unusual, in this
case, is the relative stability of the present rightwing-dominated
government. Indeed, opinion polls published this week indicate that
Netanyahu´s party, Likud, would be the biggest in the next parliament
by some distance. So why the hurry? The immediate reason is domestic.
A controversial law that exempts thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews
from compulsory military service is due to expire in August, and
Netanyahu has been caught between the secular and religious parties
in his coalition.
The "Tal law" is deeply unpopular with Israel´s majority secular
population, who send their sons and daughters to serve in the army at
the age of 18, and it was declared unconstitutional by the supreme
court in February.
Secular politicians, including the extreme rightwing foreign
minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and centrist defence minister, Ehud
Barak, are promoting change, while the small religious parties, which
are crucial to the coalition, are fighting hard for ultra-orthodox
youths to be allowed to opt for religious study over military service.
Before a Knesset vote next Wednesday on legislative options to
replace the Tal law, Lieberman announced that his party´s "obligation
to the coalition is over". By calling an election, Netanyahu will
forestall the risk of his government capsizing and the present law
will be extended almost to the end of the year.
There are other, party-political reasons for an early election. The
main opposition centrist party, Kadima, which won most seats in the
2009 election, has just chosen a new leader, Shaul Mofaz, to replace
Tzipi Livni. That has led to a sharp drop in the polls, with
predictions of its number of seats falling from 28 to 13, ratings
that Netanyahu, it can be assumed, would like to exploit.
A new centrist party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), led by the
popular TV personality Yair Lapid, is scoring well, with predictions
of 12 seats, more if Livni jumps ship to join it. However, an early
election would deprive the fledgling party of the time it needs to
hone policies and organisation.
According to a poll this week, Likud would get about 31 of the 120
seats; Labour would come in second with 17; and Lieberman´s party,
Yisrael Beitenu, third with about 14. Together the rightwing parties
would have the edge on the combined centrist and left parties.
In a separate poll, 48% of respondents said Netanyahu was best suited
to lead the country, way ahead of the other main candidates put
Netanyahu is clearly on course to be prime minister again, although
the composition of a new coalition is not clear. A fresh mandate from
the electorate will strengthen his position in the arenas which are
of greatest interest to the international community: the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict and Iran.
Neither of these is likely to figure strongly in the election
campaign, whose dominant themes are expected to be the economy
and "social justice" – the demand of last summer´s massive protest
movement, which may revive in the coming weeks.
But Iran and the Palestinian issue are critically important to
Netanyahu – the first, because he wants action; the second, because
he does not.
Securing his own position before the US election in November will
give him an advantage. On the so-called peace process, it will help
him to resist potential renewed pressure for serious negotiations in
the event of Obama´s re-election. On Iran, victory at the polls would
bolster Netanyahu´s campaign for military action against the Islamic
republic´s nuclear programme.
And it may even tempt him into a window of opportunity for a strike
between his own re-election and America´s moment of decision.
Netanyahu and his cohort, defence minister Barak, stress the military
option is still firmly on the table. (guardian.co.uk © Guardian News
and Media Limited 2012 05/04/12)
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