What on earth made Benjamin Netanyahu decide to call early elections, at a time when he was presiding over a solid coalition that looked likely to set a new record for the longevity of Israeli governments? Sure, he had to deal with the problem of the exemption from military service, granted for years, to tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men. And yes, he had to pass next year's budget through the Knesset at a time when there were some indications that economic clouds may be on the horizon and that last summer's social protest may be springing to life again this coming summer. And of course, there is the perennial problem of settlements in Judea and Samaria whose legality is being challenged. But there was little reason to doubt that these problems could be handled by his present coalition, and in any case they are not going to go away and will be waiting for him after the election he is almost certain to win.
Was his decision the result of a sudden caprice, or, as some have proposed, the result of a meticulously worked out plan that took into consideration every possible issue - the political situation in Israel, the political situation in America, the Iranian nuclear project, and who knows what else - worked out to the minutest detail? A plan that seemed to lead to the inevitable conclusion that four months from now was precisely the right time for new elections that would bring about a quantum leap in Netanyahu's position at home and abroad, and make it easier for him to solve all the problems currently staring him in the face.
The parliamentary system makes it possible to call early elections, but in Israel they are usually called because the governing coalition has lost the support of the majority in parliament. In Britain they do have "snap" elections, when the party in power thinks it sees an opportunity to increase its majority. But there, only a few weeks are required to prepare for elections, a short enough time period to make seemingly reasonable predictions about the results. Still, it has happened that the results of "snap elections" in England have confounded those who initiated them, and when the elections actually ended up serving as a boomerang against the party that called them.
Preparing for elections in Israel takes months. The coming elections are now planned for September. Who knows what will happen in Israel, in the Middle East, in the world, during these next four months? The opinion polls indicate that the Likud is likely to gain a few seats in the Knesset, which may make the next coalition a bit more manageable. But who knows? Is it worth taking the risk and plunging the country into a premature election that is going to cost us about NIS 400 million, based on expectations about the situation four months from now? Is this a calculated risk?
It has been suggested that the calculus for calling early elections is intimately connected with plans to carry out a military strike against the Iranian nuclear weapon project. But why would early elections facilitate such plans? And why would holding an Israeli election before the American elections, which will take place this coming November, improve the Israeli government's position vis-a-vis the U.S. administration?
In Washington they have already been disabused of the illusion, which existed early on, that U.S. pressure can bring down the Netanyahu government. They have learned to their chagrin that the present coalition is sufficiently stable to withstand such pressure. Why would things be different after an early election in Israel?
The inescapable conclusion is that the uncertainties accompanying the decision to advance the elections are many, and are essentially incalculable. They are in the realm of what Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, used to refer to as the "known unknowns". They will begin to become known only after the votes are counted. And in the end, they might not mesh with the calculations that led to these early elections.
The uncertainty connected with plans for the future was described by the Scottish poet Robert Burns over 200 years ago:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
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