Wednesday 16 May 2012

Bibi Does Election U-Turn

Within the space of three short days, early elections were on and then off again.  The timescale of this U-turn was quite astonishing.  On Sunday evening, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced to his Likud party convention that early elections would be held.  On Monday morning, the first reading of the bill to dissolve the Knesset was passed.  In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the new coalition agreement was signed with Shaul Mofaz and the Kadima Party, and early elections were cancelled.  By bringing Kadima into the coalition, Bibi has almost created a government of national unity.  The only main party which is now outside of the coalition is the Labour Party, and its new leader Shelly Yachimovich becomes the leader of the official opposition.

There are a number of people, both within political circles and outside, who feel that Bibi's conduct on the issue of the elections has been less than fair and honest.  It transpires that he was holding coalition discussions with Shaul Mofaz for at least a week before the announcement that an agreement had been reached.  This begs the question why Bibi decided to make a public announcement about early elections and allow the Knesset to debate the first reading of the dissolution bill, when he was on the verge of concluding a new coalition agreement?  Was this a negotiating tactic to force Mofaz to make the final concession?  The formal announcement that an early election would take place certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons.  No sooner had electioneering got into full force, when it was all frozen.

Even though the way in which it was done raises big questions, I believe that the act of delaying the election is probably more beneficial for the State of Israel and its citizens than proceeding to early elections.  Israel is currently confronting a number of critical issues, and there was a huge danger of these issues becoming too wrapped up with a general election.  Despite the international focus having been moved away from Iran over the past few months, this issue probably remains Israel's largest challenge in the short to medium term.  Some parties are taking a much more aggressive approach advising Israel to take military action against Iran.  Others are advising a more cautious and conciliatory approach.  Even former heads of intelligence have weighed in with their "words of wisdom", only in an attempt to exact political revenge on those that they don't like.  This is a fraught subject that has major implications for Israel and her citizens.  A decision taken by a stable almost-unity government is surely better than airing this issue in election platforms.

There is also the controversial issue of the replacement to the Tal Law.  This is an issue which is split down party political lines as the religious parties are doing their utmost to convince lawmakers to enact a replacement law that will still allow yeshivah boys to be exempt from military service.  Opponents wish to see at least some minimum form of national service which will apply to all of Israel's citizens, without exceptions.  This is a messy political hot potato that is best kept out of election platform politics.

The passing of the new budget is almost always held to ransom by coalition negotiations.  Parties negotiating possible inclusion in the coalition frequently predicate their support of the budget on receiving key concessions in the coalition agreement.  At a time when the economic stability of many countries in the world is so much under threat, economic high jinks cannot be afforded in Israel.  It would be good to get the budget approved without the need to bow to parties looking to extract value from the coalition negotiations.

For Kadima, the extension of the Knesset term has saved it from election decimation.  There is little doubt that a general election at this time would have substantially reduced its Knesset faction.  At the same time the new coalition agreement has raised doubts in the minds of many Kadima members, particularly those who came from parties on the left of the political spectrum, about whether this is a first step towards uniting with the Likud.  The most senior of these doubters, Kadima council chairman Haim Ramon, immediately tendered his resignation from the party.  He was followed by many grass-roots members of the party in a move which threatens to split the party, even before a single ballot is cast in a general election.

The big winner in this move is Prime Minister Netanyahu.  He has shown himself to be a shrewd political player, even though he has trodden on more than a few toes in the process.  The upshot of all of his political manoeuvring is that Bibi is king of Israel, just as his supporters like to chant at public gatherings.  He currently holds all the cards in his hands, and has a very strong political position to see him through to the end of the Knesset session and into the next general election.  He will need to see out at least one more summer, which is promising to be a summer with greater social protest than we saw last summer.  This is certainly a threat to him, but the electorate has little or no alternative choices to select from.  Opposition parties to the Likud are disparate and decimated.

The electorate has been spared an election this summer.  This will save a substantial sum of money, and will delay the inevitable filthy negative politics associated with election campaigns for at least another year.  I hope that, by the time we reach the start of the next campaign in a year or 18 months from now, many of the critical issues mentioned above that urgently require attention will have been dealt with.

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