Israel goes for early balloting
Netanyahu's "successes" include a depressed economy and stalled "peace process", notes Khaled Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem
The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has unanimously voted to dissolve itself, paving the way for early general elections slated for 22 January. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the organisation of early elections would allow for the formation of a stronger government and put Israel in a better position to tackle security and economic challenges. "I have decided, for the benefit of Israel, to hold elections and as soon as possible," said Netanyahu.
The current Israeli government, comprising a coalition of extreme religious and right wing parties, does not face an imminent danger of collapse. However, inter-party recriminations and acrimonious bargaining over a proposed austerity budget could have caused serious damage to the government, especially to the public standing of Netanyahu and his closest allies.
Likewise, the ongoing debate over the Iranian nuclear issue and mounting opposition to a unilateral Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations seem to have played a part in expediting the decision to hold early elections.
Observers in Israel argue that Netanyahu would rather defer a possible attack on Iran until after the Israeli and American elections than launch a disastrous attack now which would cost him dearly at the polls.
In an electioneering speech before the Knesset on Monday, Netanyahu urged the Israeli public to re-elect him. He listed his government's achievements, including economic growth, building a border fence along the Egyptian borders and establishing a defence force. "We didn't initiate any unnecessary wars. There were no wars at all in my seven years as prime minister. The reason there were no wars because we showed strength."
However, Netanyahu nearly completely ignored the moribund peace process with the Palestinians, prompting some opposition figures to wonder whether the Israeli premier considered keeping that process in a state of absolute stagnation an achievement or a failure.
The Netanyahu government consistently flew in the face of the international community by embarking on an intensive campaign of settlement building and expansion throughout the West Bank, particularly Arab East Jerusalem.
The Israeli government got very close to bringing the showdown with the Muslims of the world to the brink by encouraging messianic Jewish fanatics to encroach on Muslim holy places in East Jerusalem.
The ultimate goal of these Talmudic-minded fanatics is to gain a permanent foothold at the Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) of Jerusalem in order to build a Jewish temple, which the fanatics say would accelerate the appearance of the Jewish Messiah, also known as Redeemer, who would create a worldwide Jewish empire to be ruled from Jerusalem.
The decision by Netanyahu to call early elections is rooted in two main domestic considerations. First, the normally heated and exhausting debate over the national budget. Smaller parties in the coalition often condition their voting for the budget on receiving hefty chunks of budgetary allocations, making the goal of passing an austerity budget in the Knesset nearly impossible. Hence, Netanyahu hopes that moving up the election date would save him a lot of blackmail especially by religious parties such as Shas.
The second consideration is Netanyahu's desire to thwart efforts by his political foes to form a bloc that could defeat him in the next elections. According to the Israeli press, a bloc headed by former prime minister Ehud Olmert and including center-left parties, such as the Labor party and Kadima, the main opposition party, could defeat the Likud.
Nonetheless, the latest opinion polls in Israel would give Netanyahu's Likud 32 seats, the biggest number of seats given to any party in the 120-seat-parliament.
There are several factors likely to influence the Israeli voter's behavior in the next election. First, the Israeli economy. Basically, the Israeli economy is in a good shape. The market exchange rate of the Israeli currency, the shekel, has remained stable despite the severe financial crisis haunting several countries in the European Union.
Israel is suffering from high costs of living and mounting poverty. This situation could exacerbate until the designated date of the election. A number of Israelis have already committed suicide by burning themselves to death. Self-immolation has become a popular method of protesting poverty, both in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Second, Iran. Most Israelis consider the Iranian nuclear programme an existential threat. However, a majority of Israelis dread the consequences of a failed or indecisive unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. Hence, most Israelis would oppose an attack on Iran that is not led by the United States.
Many Israelis also think that the possible re-election of President Barack Obama wouldn't auger well for Netanyahu's reelection chances, given the purported bad chemistry between the two and the reported intervention by the Israeli premier in favour of Obama's Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.
Third, ideology. The Israeli Jewish society continues to move to the right. At the same time, the liberal and leftist forces continue to shrink, which gives the Likud and its traditional allies a greater opportunity to win the upcoming elections.
Needless to say, a Likud triumph in the next elections is sure to keep the stagnant peace process hanging between life and death.
This would push the Palestinians to take a number of unilateral measures out of despair, including declaring statehood or even dismantling the Palestinian Authority and possibly adopting a new strategy based on the one state solution.
The re-election in Israel of an extremist government is also likely to lead to the worsening of already strained relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours, including Egypt and Jordan.
The two Arab states base their relations with the Jewish state on the presumption that peace would eventually be achieved and that the Palestinians would be freed from Jewish domination and allowed to have their viable and independent state.
Hence, the likely irreversible demise of the peace process could ultimately generate a lot of tribulation and turmoil as well as sparks off a conflagration that would directly affect relations between Israel and both of Egypt and Jordan.