Nobody seems to want early elections, so why are we having them? (TIMES OF ISRAEL) By RAPHAEL AHREN 05/04/12)
TIMES OF ISRAEL
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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?
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
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.
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.”
“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?
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
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.
“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
“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.
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.” (© 2012 THE TIMES
OF ISRAEL 05/04/12)
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