Last Updated: Fri Oct 12, 2012 16:36 pm (KSA) 13:36 pm (GMT)

Preparing for early elections in Israel

Hassan A. Barari

Amid a lot of regional uncertainties, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early elections. The upcoming elections will most likely take place in next January or February. The intention to hold elections in a few months means that the elections campaign will be short. Nevertheless, various political forces will be in a race to formulate their positions with regard to a range of issues.

Implicit in Netanyahu›s decision to go for early elections are two considerations. First, there is a political opportunity for him to win and to shape the agenda for the election campaign. In fact, this has been a tactic used by different ruling parties in the past whenever they felt that there was a political opportunity. While the opposition is having hard time to put their act together and to push for someone who can fit the bill of the premiership, Netanyahu and his party are doing good in polls. Second, Netanyahu seeks to preempt small parties and junior partners from setting the agenda for the elections if the Knesset finishes its four-year term. In Israel, when the term of the Knesset nears, some junior coalition parties feel that sticking with the coalition may be detrimental to their interests. In many cases, junior partners tend to initiate a crisis over an issue that it can appeal to the voters. In Netanyahu›s words, «We face an election year, and in an election year it is difficult for parties to put the national interest over their political interest.» This problem will be acute in negotiations on the budget in December.

The national agenda will surely top the campaigns for all contenders. Since Israel›s occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967, two issues have dominated the national debate — territories and security. Indeed, the position on these two issues has placed Israelis along the right-left continuum. Perhaps, for the first time, the Palestinian questions will not be as visible as before in the campaign for two reasons. First, the differences among contenders on the Palestinian issue are narrowing down. Second, Israel is not threatened by a lack of solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. On top of that, Iran and other domestic issues will most likely shape the voting behavior of Israelis.

As an obvious front-runner, Netanyahu believes security and diplomatic issues are his strong points. His relentless effort to push the Iranian nuclear issue on top of the agenda of the key power has been the hallmark of his diplomacy. His clear position on the need to prevent Iran from going nuclear will set the stage for his campaign to win the upcoming elections. Likud›s platform is expected to focus on the risks involved if Israelis fail to pay attention to the Iranian threat. Although the Iranian nuclear issue may push increasing numbers of Israelis to vote for Likud under Netanyahu, other issues will be hotly debated. They include the security threats emanating from the Sinai Peninsula, the ramifications of the Syrian crisis, relationship with Turkey, the ascendance of political Islam, and the economic situation.

Israelis are not happy with the rising cost of living that hit the middle class and further impoverished the poor. Last year, Israel witnessed demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to protest over the socio-economic conditions. Other parties will try to capitalize on the grievances of people in order to weaken Likud and Netanyahu. Seen in this way, I think that the battle will be over which issues to be placed on the front burner. Netanyahu will try his best to draw the attention of voters to the external threats and will try to impress them that he is better than others in dealing with regional security issues. On the other hand, other political parties will try to highlight the economic problems to weaken Netanyahu›s electoral base.

The Labor Party under the leadership of Shelly Yachimovich — economically-leftist — is expected to benefit from the economic issue. And yet, Yachimovich and her party will not gain enough seats to form an alternative group to Netanyahu›s. The position of Kadima is not better than Labor. On the contrary, Kadima — under the leadership of Mofaz — is expected to lose many seats. Barring any last minute surprise, the biggest loser in the upcoming elections will be Kadima under Mofaz. But they can both join Netanyahu in a board coalition and accordingly Netanyahu will have the chance to lead his government with a more moderate makeup.

The writer is a columnist at the Saudi-based Arab News, where this article was published on Oct. 12, 2012

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