Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos called new elections two weeks ago. He came to the conclusion that after the serious cutbacks that he managed to push through parliament, he needed his mandate renewed by the people so he could be assured of a stable work environment for the next four years. That's why there will be Greek elections in two weeks, four weeks after they were called.
Here things are much more laborious. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't want early elections. He's trying to drag things out as long as possible. But around the corner some political bombshells are waiting that won't allow him to finish his government's term in any case.
By August, Netanyahu must come up with a bill to replace the Tal Law, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in February. It will not be easy to come to agreements on this loaded issue with Shas and United Torah Judaism, when from the other side there is significant and growing pressure to draft the ultra-Orthodox into the Israel Defense Forces, or at least into civilian national service.
By August, Netanyahu will also have to vacate Migron, which will not win him any right-wing popularity contests. Lurking in the background is State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, who is on the verge of publishing some very critical reports.
And if that's not enough, the social protests are expected to return this summer at full strength. The productive class still feels exploited, even after the Trajtenberg Committee, and it will demand more than what it demanded last summer. But this time Netanyahu will have nothing to give. Instead of offering additional funding and benefits, he's going to have to cut the very large sum of NIS 15 billion from the 2013 budget, and if there's one thing Netanyahu doesn't want to do, it's impose hardships on the public. He'd prefer to be Santa Claus, handing out presents.
The truth is, the budget hasn't been doing that well this year, either. Growth is slowing, reducing tax revenue, so that instead of ending 2012 with a deficit of two percent, it will be 3.5 percent. That's bad.
But even if we can get by this year without major cutbacks, next year there will have to be cuts, and lots of them. The policy of generosity carried out by Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz over the past two years doesn't leave much choice. Judgment Day has arrived.
If by some miracle Netanyahu could transform himself into the Netanyahu of 2003, he would face the public and tell it the truth: We must impose cuts to save the economy. We have to cut exactly the way we did in 2003, when I was finance minister in Ariel Sharon's government. Over the past two years we increased spending irresponsibly: NIS 18 billion in 2011 and another NIS 15 billion in 2012, and we're also committed to implementing the expensive Trajtenberg recommendations. Now it's clear that we can't carry all of this, so we have to cut.
But since miracles are not frequently seen in these parts, Netanyahu will not deliver such a Churchillian address. He will distract the public with some kind of delaying tactic on the Tal Law, come to some sly agreement on Migron, and instead of budget cuts he will orchestrate some wasteful and expensive election economics.
Even the more restrained MKs will start passing "social welfare" laws in bulk to curry favor with the voters, and in short order the government will lose its ability to govern. The damage will accumulate, the populist atmosphere will intensify, inflation will rise, investments will drop, and unemployment will once again sprout up.
To avoid all this, Netanyahu must submit a pared-down budget for 2013, evacuate Migron and force the Haredim to serve in the army. But since there's no chance he will take any of these steps, the only way to save the economy is to call early elections.
Once Netanyahu has called elections, the hysteria will die down. Populist legislation will stop and decisions on budget increases will be frozen. After the elections, a new government will be formed with four years to plan, without elections around the corner. Budget cuts will become part of the coalition agreements, as will the Tal Law and vacating Migron. Because what a government can do in its first year, it cannot do in its fourth.
True, we do not follow the Greek model that allows elections in four weeks. But under Israeli law we can, and should, dissolve the Knesset and hold elections in 90 days.
Who knows, perhaps Netanyahu has a surprise for us in honor of Independence Day? After all, he knows as well as anyone that a strong and stable economy is a prerequisite for independence.
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