Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

U.S. Sets Israel in the Election Mood

JERUSALEM, May 6 2012 (IPS) - If on Sep. 4, exit polls confirm what opinion polls currently predict – the reinstatement of a right-wing government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu – Israelis might still ask themselves, what was this general election about?

The one who, this week behind the scene, will call for the dissolution of the Knesset parliament, and thus will lead the demise of the Netanyahu-led coalition is no one but Netanyahu himself.

Yet, the current government is stable, and powerful; the economy is booming, at least in macro-economic terms. So, why elections now and not in November 2013 as planned, pundits ask?

The two-state solution loathed by so many amongst the Prime Minister’s coalition partners (and maybe also by himself) seems unattainable, even farther away than it was in 2009 when Netanyahu was chosen to lead his country.

Three years on, the Israeli leader has successfully repelled U.S. pressures to provide at least a modicum of decorum on a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians; settlements are in full bloom.

And, he’s managed to turn the tables. Not the threat of an anti-Israel “diplomatic tsunami” as a result of a unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations, but that of unilateral Israeli action against Iran’s suspicious nuclear programme has prompted the Security Council to vote more anti- Iran economic sanctions.

Domestically, the Israeli leader seems to be doing fine. Though observing the seven-day mourning period in self-imposed silence for the passing away of his father Bentzion Netanyahu at 102 years of age, he read last week’s headlines that he is still perceived as most suited to lead Israel.

According to a poll published in the liberal daily Haaretz, he enjoys 48 percent support amongst respondents.

Moreover, an absolute majority (51 percent) disagree with the somehow contemptuous assessment of former Shin Bet internal security chief Yuval Diskin that the “messianic” leadership of both Netanyahu and his defence minister can’t be trusted as far as Iran is concerned. In contrast, only 25 percent agree with the damning opinion.

Diskin was in charge of an anti-terror apparatus. But his statement is being corroborated by former security and political ‘gurus’, and by surveys showing steady opposition to a unilateral strike on Iran. Only between 19 percent and 31 percent would favour such course of action.

Yet, all polls point to Netanyahu’s re-election – which seems to indicate that most Israelis might not value Netanyahu’s threat of military action against Iran as more than what it ought to be – a bluff destined to force the U.S. into military action of its own.

The catalyst for early elections is in the so-called ‘Tal Law’ which exempts ultra-Orthodox religious students from mandatory military service. In February, the controversial law was ruled unconstitutional by the High Court of Justice, and is to expire in August. The government has been forced to grapple with the legislation of a new enlistment law. It’s a problematic endeavour, given the current coalition that includes ultra-orthodox ministers determined to preserve their constituency’s privileges.

But there’s a legal hitch. According to the Knesset’s legal advisor, early elections automatically extend laws abrogated by the High Court to at least three months into the new parliament – this, in order to avoid hasty enactments of demagogic laws by legislators motivated by immediate electoral gains.

The legal opinion relies on a clause of one of the so-called ‘Basic Laws’. Due to the absence of a clear-cut separation between state and religion, the Jewish State has no constitution per se but a set of fundamental laws.

So, if the enlistment law doesn’t constitute the real reason behind elections, then what is?

If elections are to be held this summer, Iran’s nuclear threat might not be that urgent, note analysts. Hence, political wisdom has it that from now on until September, Netanyahu’s election campaign will neutralise any likelihood of a military campaign against Iran.

Though in 1981, former prime minister Menachem Begin’s decision to attack the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak led to his re-election, a strike on Iran’s nuclear installations might expose Netanyahu to worldwide accusations that he sabotaged the effectiveness of economic sanctions for the sake of, and held world peace hostage to, his own political future.

Besides, were such attack to fail, or to engulf Israel in an all-out war, his chance of re-election might be compromised.

Netanyahu is not a ‘va-t-en-guerre’ leader, experts concur. He’s excellent at one thing – bluffing and doing nothing, his critics say.

That precisely may be the reason why the incumbent prime minister is favoured as the candidate to succeed himself. An aficionado of polls, Netanyahu knows it’s safer to keep Iran on the backburner.

He’ll insist that Tehran’s nuclear intentions – not the fast-approaching impossibility of achieving a two- state solution to the conflict with the Palestinian that would ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state – constitute the real existential threat to Israel’s security; and he’ll do nothing before Election Day.

But what if Netanyahu risks an attack on Iran during the interim period between Sep. 4 and Nov. 6? That would surely be perceived as gross interference in U.S. elections, augmenting the incumbent president’s discernible loathing of the Israeli leader.

That’s exactly the scenario Netanyahu might envision – U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election. And that might be the true reason behind his decision to advance elections – the conviction that being at the helm for four more years will already now compel Obama to take into account his unyielding vision, and that a unilateral attack on Iran is still a viable option.

During the interim period between Israeli and U.S. election days, Netanyahu believes he’ll be in a better position to project the image that he can call the shots on Iran. His reaffirmed power would then be much more than ‘Much Ado about Nothing’.

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