26.10.2012 Author: Vitaly Bilan

The Israeli elections, Netanyahu and the Iranian factor

htmlimageKnesset dissolved

On the evening of October 16, after convening for its winter session, the 18th, Israel’s Knesset finally voted to disband, something long awaited by many of the country’s political forces. Significantly, all 100 members who participated in the decision were in favor (the remaining 20 MPs abstained).

In so doing, the MPs actually were supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal, which he had voiced a week earlier at a press conference convened especially for that purpose.

So unless something extraordinary happens, on January 22, 2013 the Israelis will elect their fourth new parliament in 10 years (the next parliamentary elections had been scheduled for late 2013).

The official reason for dissolving the Israeli parliament was the Knesset’s inability to agree on a budget for next year. However, everyone understands that it would have taken a miracle for the current parliament to last until the end of its term.

And Netanyahu probably would not have gone for another separate deal with the opposition Kadima party and its leader Shaul Mofaz to form a new “national unity government,” as he did in May.

Why not? Bibi and his ruling Likud party are actually at the peak of their popularity and may win one out of every four seats in the new parliament. Moreover, together with its allies from the nationalist and religious camps, Likud can count on almost 70 seats.

And if to that we add the fact that recent polls show that 57% of Israeli voters believe Netanyahu is the best candidate for prime minister (in comparison, Bibi’s chief opponent — Shelly Yakhimovich, who heads the left centrist Labor party — now can count on only 17% of Israelis supporting him), it would be naïve to expect an experienced and wily politician like Netanyahu to miss such a great opportunity for a fresh start.

What is the secret behind the current prime minister’s popularity?

Netanyahu: riding the wave

Perhaps the main thing keeping Bibi on his feet is the relative stability of the Israeli economy.

In early September, Moody’s international credit rating agency issued an upbeat annual report on the state of Israel’s economy, leaving the country’s sovereign rating unchanged at A1 with a stable outlook for the future. The report’s authors pointed to Israel’s high standard of living, its financial stability and its ability to recover quickly from crises as justification for the relatively high economic rating.

Moreover, a report by the Bank of Israel also struck a positive note in March, and its governor, Stanley Fischer, called the state of Israel’s economy at that time “very good.”

This allowed a “master of PR” like the current head of the Israeli government to cite the report’s conclusions whenever he had dealings with the electorate. Other contributing factors included Israel’s 4.7% economic growth over the previous year; its impressive performance during the deep global economic crisis; the fact that Israel’s economy grew faster than those of most Western countries; the fact that it outgrew the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development by a factor of 2.5; and the fact that its unemployment rate fell to the lowest level since 1983, reducing economic inequality and poverty.

The generally favorable state of Israel’s economy at present has also allowed Netanyahu to keep the governing coalition functioning stably throughout virtually his entire premiership and, as a consequence, keep the country’s domestic politics on an even keel.

However, the chief result of the strong economy has been Netanyahu’s ability to pursue a tough and uncompromising foreign policy in almost all areas, and that yielded his biggest dividends with the electorate.

First of all, we should mention the purposeful and so far largely unsuccessful “Israelization” of Barack Obama’s Middle East policy.

Obama’s verbal “balancing act” last May was perhaps the most revealing. After a barrage of criticism from the Israeli government and the US “Jewish street,” he found it necessary to abruptly change his tone on Palestine in a speech to 10,000 attendees at the annual congress of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) (my previous article for New Eastern Outlook, “Obama Caught Between Israel and Palestine,” discussed that in some detail).

In addition to his successful strategy for dealing with the Obama administration, Netanyahu can also count his successful campaign against recognition of an independent Palestine and full UN membership for the Palestinians as an asset.

However, Bibi’s conduct regarding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has perhaps been the most successful in the eyes of the Israeli electorate.

Iran and ambitions

After the EU imposed new sanctions on October 16 aimed at stopping all financial transactions between Iranian and European banks, ending cooperation on telecommunications and banning natural gas imports of natural gas and tanker leasing, and even though Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast insisted that Iran does not intend to curtail its nuclear program, there is reason to believe that Iran is facing serious economic problems that could force it to suspend nuclear development.

That leads voters to view the performance of the current Israeli leadership in “subduing” Iran as quite respectable.

However, there is always a desire for more. Therefore, the big question now appears to be whether Israel’s current prime minister will succumb to the temptation of launching a military operation against Iran in order to boost his rating to unprecedented heights during the election campaign.

In the end, the example of Menachem Begin, who decided to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor a month before the 1981 parliamentary elections, thereby significantly improving Israel’s geopolitical standing in the region, is definitely making the ambitious Bibi restless.

But that was Begin. Even such a seemingly insignificant prime minister as Ehud Olmert decided to go ahead with operation Molten Lead prior to the elections in February 2009. That action significantly improved the standing of the Kadima party, whose popularity was sagging.

But does Netanyahu understand that present-day Iran (even weakened by the sanctions) is a far cry from the Hamas quasi-state and even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? And despite the “package of anti-crisis measures,” Israel’s economy may not be up to a campaign against Iran.

Moody’s assessed that the current domestic political crisis has significantly delayed approval of a number of key structural reforms in Israel’s economy and has also weakened fiscal discipline. Then there is the lack of an approved state budget for 2013, which Moody’s experts believe could have a negative impact on the country’s economy — especially if war comes.

In Israeli politics, a head of state who decides to hold early elections generally loses (incidentally, Netanyahu has already been burned by that rule once — in 1999, when he lost to Ehud Barak.).

Netanyahu currently has a lead strong enough to break that trend. He just needs to be wise enough to avoid making any fatally stupid foreign policy moves.

Vitaly Nikolayevich Bilan holds a Candidate of Science (History) degree and is an expert on the Middle East. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.