Early Election Could Strengthen Netanyahu’s Mandate

The prime minister could run as the defender of Israel before having to deal with the aftermath of an attack.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, January 20
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, January 20 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could call early elections in September or October. His conservative Likud party is expected to do well. An electoral victory would likely strengthen Netanyahu in his confrontational foreign policy toward Iran.

Netanyahu and his coalition partner Ehud Barak, the defense minister, have drawn criticism from members of the opposition and within their own ranks for their hawkish rhetoric on preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capacity at all costs. Netanyahu routinely describes the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran as an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once suggested to drive Israel into the sea.

The latest to join the chorus of critics of an Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities was former prime minister Ehud Olmert who told CNN in an interview that was broadcast on Monday that military action should be a “last resort” and “supported by the international community,” including the United States.

On Friday, the former head of Israel’s internal security service, Yuval Diskin, professed a lack of faith in the political leadership which he believes “makes decisions based on messianic feelings.” It’s probably not a coincidence that Netanyahu describes the Iranian leadership as a “messianic cult.”

According to Diskin, the prime minister and Barak “are misleading the public on the Iran issue.”

They tell the public that if Israel acts, Iran won’t have a nuclear bomb. This is misleading. Actually, many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race.

Diskin’s words echoed those of the former head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service Mossad, Meir Dagan, who told American television in March than an attack on Iran would have “a devastating impact” on Israel.

The divide over Iran policy isn’t the only thing that is weakening Netanyahu’s multiparty coalition composed of conservatives, Labor and nationalist, right-wing parties of which Yisrael Beiteinu, led by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, is the largest. As Walter Russell Mead points out in his blog at The American Interest, there is also tension between the secular Likud and religious fringe parties about “how religion should shape the political agenda.”

Jewish law in all its complexity, many feel, should be the guiding principle in a Jewish state. The resulting issues go from how strictly should state entities observe the sabbath to whether ultraorthodox students should be able to defer their military service indefinitely.

The draft is a contentious issue. Secular Israelis “want to end or at least sharply curtail the special provisions that allow religious students to postpone or evade military service and are threatening to introduce legislation to that effect,” writes Mead. He concludes that it may be easier for Netanyahu to fight a general election than to resolve this coalition dispute without one.

In his foreign policy, the prime minister would probably be strengthened by an election. He could run as the uncompromising defender of Israel’s security before having to deal with the aftermath of a possible strike on Iran.

If, by contrast, Israel is internationally condemned for unilaterally lashing out against Iran’s nuclear sites and fails to do more than set back the Islamic republic’s uranium enrichment program by a few years — or worse, convince the Iranians that they indeed need a nuclear weapon to defend themselves against Israel — Netanyahu would be hard pressed to secure another mandate.

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