Why Netanyahu wants early elections

by Jonathan Cook, The View From Nazareth

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu held a press conference late on Tuesday at which he launched into a tirade against two centre-right ministers he had fired from his government earlier that day.

Israel is almost certainly now heading into elections, expected in March, two years after Netanyahu formed his third government, widely seen as the most right wing in Israel’s history.

It was hard not to discern in Netanyahu’s fulminations against his colleagues, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, whom he accused of trying to mount a “putsch” against him, the accumulated grievances of months of petty squabbling inside the coalition.

That is hardly surprising. After the last general election, in January 2013, Netanyahu dithered for weeks before completing agreements with his coalition partners, reluctantly including the parties of Lapid and Livni.

He had preferred a more traditional and reliable alliance between the right and the two parties of the ultra-Orthodox, Jewish religious fundamentalists.

But Netanyahu was forced into an uncomfortable, broader coalition by the unexpected success of both Lapid’s party and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home.

Lapid and Bennett represented increasingly strong sectors of Israeli society. Bennett had articulated a new sense of identity and sectoral interest among the ideological, or extremist, settler community, while Lapid had identified and exploited the grievances of young middle-class Israelis who felt the system was letting them down economically. This latter group staged a mass “social protest” in summer 2011 that briefly rocked Netanyahu’s previous government.

Mutual distrust

The reality was that these two communities’ interests were in conflict – the settlers, after all, had been a drain on the wider economy for decades – but most of Lapid’s voters failed to grasp this elementary truth.

Instead Lapid and Bennett were driven together into an unlikely pact by their mutual distrust of Netanyahu and a common sense of antipathy towards the ultra-Orthodox, who had become a popular scapegoat for Israel’s economic weaknesses.

Netanyahu simply could not make the coalition numbers work without the large bloc of seats provided by either Lapid or Bennett’s parties. But the two leaders agreed that neither would enter a Netanyahu government if it included the religious parties.

There were short-term benefits for Netanyahu nonetheless. By putting Lapid inside the government, Netanyahu removed a popular, glamorous former TV show host from the opposition benches.

Lapid could also be produced as a fig leaf for Washington, suggesting, against all evidence, that Israel intended to engage seriously in a peace process – serving the same function played by the Labor leader, Ehud Barak, in Netanyahu’s previous government.

Now, in bringing forward an election, Netanyahu can try to unmake a coalition he never really desired, and one he no longer needs after even the Americans appear to have given up on the diplomatic track since its implosion last April.

Netanyahu had chosen this moment to collapse the government because Lapid, his biggest potential challenger, was at his most vulnerable, observed Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University.

“It is not that Netanyahu is strong at the moment, but Lapid’s popularity ratings are low. Polls suggest Netanyahu is currently the only candidate who can lead a coalition after the election.”

Budget impasse

As finance minister, Lapid has managed little in the way of economic reform. Not surprisingly, the issue that ultimately terminated the coalition was an impasse on the budget. Lapid wanted to make home purchases cheaper for first-time buyers, ideally those who had served in the army.

He opposed Netanyahu’s efforts to plough yet more of Israel’s depleted finances into bloating the army’s coffers at the expense of the aspirational middle classes.

The two found themselves on collision course.

Netanyahu’s electoral campaign is supported by a small number of tycoons who control the Israeli economy and are opposed even to Lapid’s limited efforts at liberalisation.

That conflict was illustrated by a measure introduced by Netanyahu’s coalition partners this month to prevent US billionaire Sheldon Adelson from distributing a free daily, Israel Hayom, that cheerleads Netanyahu and is now the widest-read newspaper in the country.

The question is now whether Lapid can survive the impending election, or whether he becomes yet another casualty of the Israeli public’s propensity for fleeting protest votes.

The omens are not good. Shinui, an anti-religious party led by his father, Tommy Lapid, in the 2003 election, vanished three years later. Kadima, the party Ariel Sharon founded and that won the 2006 election, now has only two parliamentary seats and is expected to disappear at the next election.

But the anger over the economy that Lapid tapped into remains.

Netanyahu will almost certainly have to contend with a new popular challenger from the centre. Moshe Kahlon, a former minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, announced on Wednesday he would be running as head of a new, as-yet-unnamed party.

Like Lapid, his top priorities will be social and economic reform. Also like Lapid, he is unlikely to put the peace process high on his agenda. While serving in Netanyahu’s previous government, he was known for opposing a Palestinian state and dismantling the settlements.

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