Election fever grips Israel as Netanyahu maneuver expected

Israel’s current coalition government is one of its most stable in decades, and the next scheduled national poll is nearly two years off. Yet election fever has gripped the country and some believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is quietly preparing to call for an early vote, perhaps in the middle of this year.

The two biggest political parties — Netanyahu’s conservative Likud and its main rival, the centrist Kadima — recently announced that they would hold primaries to select leaders whose names would be on the next election ballot.

The left-leaning Labor Party held a leadership convention in September. And this month, popular TV news anchor Yair Lapid promised to shake up the status quo, saying he would compete for prime minister as head of a new party.


In a country where the prime minister’s average term in recent decades has been shorter than three years and most governments collapse prematurely, some believe that Netanyahu, who took office in 2009, will seek to capitalize on his improving popularity by securing another term before the U.S. presidential election in November.

Netanyahu and President Obama have had several high-profile clashes over Israel’s continued settlement construction on land it seized during the 1967 Middle East War. In recent months, the White House has scaled back pressure, probably out of concern that such moves might anger Jewish and evangelical Christian voters in the United States and provide Obama’s Republican challengers with ammunition.

If Obama wins reelection, the thinking goes, he could renew pressure on Netanyahu to make progress on peace talks just as the prime minister is facing his own reelection.

A November victory for Obama would renew “his mandate to throw his weight around in the peace process and pressure Netanyahu and Israel to take initiatives or make concessions,” said Ofer Kenig, an expert on party politics at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Netanyahu may prefer to have his election behind him when this starts happening.”

Bolstered by the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit, Netanyahu’s approval rating currently hovers around 50%, and opinion polls show his Likud Party would win the highest number of Knesset seats if elections were held today.

“Netanyahu couldn’t hope for a better situation,” said political scientist Menachem Hofnung at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu aides dismissed the speculation, saying the prime minister has said nothing about moving up the vote, now set for the fall of 2013.

Yet analysts point to Netanyahu’s surprise decision last month to hold the leadership primary at the end of January. That triggered opposition leader Tzipi Livni to follow suit, announcing the Kadima primary for March.

“Once he did that, we all had to follow,” said Kadima lawmaker Meir Sheetrit, who said he may challenge Livni for the party’s leadership post. He acknowledged that a general election at this time could put Kadima at a disadvantage, because opinion polls show Livni’s message has not caught on with voters.

At the same time, Sheetrit said an early election could backfire on Netanyahu, with Kadima emphasizing the prime minister’s failure to make progress toward ending the conflict with the Palestinians, thus increasing Israel’s international isolation.

“Every prime minister who makes early elections almost always loses,” Sheetrit said. “The political situation in Israel is so dynamic. Things can turn upside down between the time you call an election and the time you vote.”

Some say Netanyahu has good reason to take that chance, given the fluid nature of Israeli politics. Though his right-leaning coalition is stable at the moment, that could always change because its members have strong differences on hot-button issues such as the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men into the army and the dismantling of unauthorized settlement outposts.

The impending criminal indictment of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is another wild card. Lieberman has been under investigation for more than a decade over allegations of bribery and money-laundering. Israel’s attorney general is expected to make a final decision on an indictment in coming months.

If charged, Lieberman may opt to bring down the coalition, analysts say, so that he and his party can face a new election before his trial begins.

Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.