With one eye on his favourable standing in the polls, the other on his international ambitions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has triggered the dissolution of his right-of-centre coalition government and called an election for Sept. 4, more than a year before the end of his mandate.
The timing frees Mr. Netanyahu from the constraints of his right-wing partners should he choose to engage in peace talks with the Palestinian leadership this summer and, coming two months before the U.S. presidential election, provides the Israeli leader with what many consider to be an ideal opportunity to attack Iran.
With President Barack Obama facing a formidable electoral challenge, analysts say, the American can’t afford to alienate the influential Jewish vote and, therefore, wouldn’t dare criticize the Israeli leader no matter what he does.
So, should Mr. Netanyahu win a renewed mandate in early September, he would have a two-month window with carte blanche in which to operate.
“By bringing the election forward,” wrote Israeli columnist Ari Shavit in the Haaretz newspaper, “Netanyahu is defining the ideal time to attack Iran: September or October.”
He also is defining the time for minimizing any loss of political support.
The latest public-opinion surveys indicate Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party would win 30 to 32 seats in the 120-seat Knesset if the election were held today, up from the 27 seats Likud has now. Its nearest rival, the rejuvenated Labour party, would capture 18 or 19 seats, a substantial increase from the 13 it won in 2009. Kadima, the former governing party, would capture only 11 seats, a fraction of the 28 the party won in 2009.
Notably, a poll last week that asked people how they viewed the individual party leaders showed that Mr. Netanyahu commands more support than his next three rivals put together, with 48 per cent of Israelis backing his re-election.
It was undoubtedly to take advantage of such numbers that Mr. Netanyahu decided to move up voting day.
Indeed, had the Prime Minister held off, his government would have had to deal with two tricky issues – the social blowback from the country’s economic inequities and the policy of exempting Orthodox men from military service, both of which are expected to roil the electorate, and Mr. Netanyahu’s polling numbers have nowhere to go but down.
History shows that Mr. Netanyahu’s numbers are vulnerable.
Three months before the February, 2009, election, Mr. Netanyahu also had a substantial lead in the polls with expectations of Likud taking some 34 Knesset seats. As the election loomed, however, support fell off considerably and Likud was left with 27.
While Mr. Netanyahu and his party appear to enjoy a substantial margin of superior support this time, the biggest variable will be the individual popularity of three new party leaders.
Shelly Yachimovich appears to be exactly what the moribund Labour party needed. Left in pieces when former party leader Ehud Barak preferred to split from the party and remain in the Netanyahu coalition, Labour has thrived under the assertive former journalist.
Shaul Mofaz of Kadima also inherited a party that appeared to have split from its former leader, Tzipi Livni. Impatient at Ms. Livni’s apparent disinterest in being leader of the opposition, party members rallied around the ambitious Mr. Mofaz, a former chief of the Israeli Defence Forces. But the party continues to bleed popular support even under his still-early days of leadership.
Yair Lapid, an entertaining former television news anchor, has come out of nowhere to win the applause of a substantial chunk of the electorate. Enough Israelis say they will vote for his newly unveiled party, called Yesh Atid (Hebrew for There is a Future), to give the completely untried political figure 11 seats in the Knesset – as many as Kadima could win.
With Yisrael Beitenu, the party of outspoken Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, expected to take a dozen or so seats, it would give Mr. Netanyahu several options in forming a coalition government in September.
While Ms. Yachimovich volunteered this past weekend that she would be willing to participate in a Netanyahu-led coalition, the Prime Minister is more apt to seek a coalition with Kadima and Lapid, two more centrist parties, his aides say.
After that, if necessary, he could choose between Mr. Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party or some combination of Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, parties.
Leaving the far-right parties out of a new coalition, however, would allow Mr. Netanyahu the freedom to negotiate with the Palestinians without his government falling.