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Netanyahu evading snap Israeli elections

  • Paula
On Monday afternoon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Knesset (Israeli parliament) for 40 minutes after its summer recess. He spoke about a lot of things - mostly his government’s diplomatic, security, and economic accomplishments - but ignored the elephant in the room.
by PAULA SLIER | Oct 18, 2018

The question foremost on everyone’s mind - including Netanyahu’s - is whether or not he will call for early elections. No one, including the prime minister himself, seems to know at this stage.

There is good reason for Netanyahu to hold snap elections. Ongoing feuds between his ministers show no sign of letting up, contentious legislation may soon bring down his government, and a corruption indictment could be just around the corner.

But despite the tensions, the latest surveys show that his Likud party is doing well, and could easily win another term. Netanyahu might want to capitalise on this show of support which will, should the polls prove correct, see him overtake the country’s founder, David Ben Gurion, to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister.

Most analysts expect Netanyahu to make the call. Those I speak with say it’s highly unlikely the current parliament will last more than a few more weeks at most. They believe Netanyahu might just be waiting until the municipal elections, which will be held at the end of this month, to be over before he makes the announcement.

Still, Likud Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein insists that there won’t be early elections. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman says, “Anyone who was looking for an excuse to call early elections will have to find another excuse.” So we’ll have to wait and see.

For Netanyahu, though, the important thing is that he cannot be viewed as dismantling his government for personal reasons. While this may be his motivation, he’s possibly hoping that a popular, newly re-elected prime minister could potentially be shielded in the corruption cases against him and his wife. However, he needs to give a better reason than this to call for elections almost a year ahead of schedule.

The charges against him are serious. Israeli police have recommended that he be indicted on bribery and breach of trust in two cases, and the attorney general is expected to give his ruling in the coming months.

Netanyahu continues to maintain his innocence, accusing the media of a witch-hunt. This has served him well with his right-wing support base who rally around him against perceived left-wingers “plotting to overthrow him”.

Until this week, the prime minister might have had the perfect reason to call for early elections. The Israeli Supreme Court has given a December 2 deadline for the passing of a new law mandating the draft of ultra-Orthodox men. It is a hugely contentious issue that has deeply divided the government. For decades, ultra-Orthodox seminary students have been exempt from military service because of Torah study. There is also a fear that after being exposed to secular life through the military, they’d leave their communities.

In a country where conscription is mandatory for everyone else, it’s a political hot potato that has created widespread resentment in the population. But this week, ultra-Orthodox factions announced that they wouldn’t quit the government if “a few changes are made” to the bill. While it’s still unclear what those changes are, Netanyahu might just have lost his excuse for snap elections if, indeed, that was what he was banking on.

Coalition members have also been at loggerheads over construction and infrastructure work carried out on national projects during Shabbat. This, too, has led some Haredi legislators to threaten to bolt the coalition, but it’s doubtful they will.

According to Israeli law, the current parliament must be replaced through new elections by November 5 2019. Recent surveys show that 42% of Israelis are in favour of holding early elections, while 38% are against it. Netanyahu is seen as the most suitable candidate for prime minister, with 38% support, far ahead of his closest competitor, retired military chief Benny Gantz, who at 12% still needs to say whether he even plans to enter politics.

Netanyahu is also pushing to lower the electoral threshold for parties seeking a seat in the Knesset to 2.75%. This would allow smaller right-wing and religious parties to enter the fray, which Netanyahu hopes will boost his standing.

Should he get another term, he would most likely build a government similar to the religious and nationalistic one he currently heads.

Politically one can expect more of the same, with the Israeli/Palestinian peace process remaining at an impasse, and Israeli-American relations continuing to flourish.

Another term in office would allow Netanyahu to push forward even more doggedly with his campaign to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The last time an Israeli government served its full term was in 1988. Whether it was a coalition crisis or a strategic move by the prime minister to maximise his chance of re-election, the voting has always been brought forward. Now it’s Netanyahu’s turn - again.

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