October 11, 2012

Israel's elections lead to fewer choices

No one can be surprised that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for elections early in 2013, months ahead of the legal deadline. It's less common that Israel's faction-based political arena is static enough for everything to happen on time.

One key difference between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama relates to our different political systems: Each morning Netanyahu awakes in the PM's residence, his number-one goal for that day is to go to bed at the end... in the PM's residence. For Obama, on the other hand, regardless of how many circles a mid-level ally runs around him, each day he knows he'll be returning to sleep in the White House. This allows him to think a bit more expansively about the opportunities and challenges facing America and the world.

For Netanyahu, as for most of his predecessors, his primary calculation has centered on maintaining and increasing his personal political power and influence. Years ago, he was the leading advocate for direct election of the Prime Minister, figuring it gave him the best chance to get in over the heads of seniority-based faction leaders within the Likud Party. And he was right -- though the flawed process, which retained a Knesset's component, evoked Churchill's maxim about trying to cross the abyss in two steps.

Netanyahu has had to share the spoils of his office with people he dislikes -- politicians like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the right and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the left. Barak has stayed on despite abandoning his own party affiliation, largely as a useful check against Netanyahu's many rivals within Likud and Israel's broader, growing right wing. Truly, his is a government of enemies.

Having pumped up the twin threats of Iran and Obama as much as possible -- against a backdrop of Arab Spring, summer, and fall -- Netanyahu is well-positioned to pick up extra seats and toss out a few of his hangers-on. Domestic issues like perennial religious and budget priorities are also in play. And so is former-PM Ehud Olmert, not quite exonerated but mostly cleared to return to politics.

The only aspect that might have been surprising -- Netanyahu's contention that the dangers facing Israel demand a clear decision by the Israeli electorate -- is also no surprise, given the way he has inflated the specter of Iran (and, yes, of Obama) to the brink of irrelevance. This was demonstrated by his recent "eh, never mind" United Nations speech, which pushed off any urgency on Iran's nuclear program until next spring at the earliest and also fell in line with President Barack Obama's consistent strategy and perspective.

Regarding the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu has obvious ideological reservations about making any substantive concessions. As a side benefit, the longer Israeli-Palestinian tensions fester and flare, the less invested Israeli voters feel in any effort for a long-term solution -- and the more they rally around a bunker-mentality leader like Netanyahu.

Having lived in the States for a number of years, Netanyahu is well aware of our own forthcoming elections. And one televised debate notwithstanding, he's a bit worried that Americans will re-elect the current President. So Netanyahu needs to appear both conciliatory toward Obama and secure back at home. Being re-elected as Prime Minister -- and without Lieberman or Barak pulling him down and cutting their own side deals -- will be the perfect formula.

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