Analysis

What's the Rush? Six Reasons for Netanyahu's Snap Election Campaign

For Netanyahu, this move will help postpone the AG's decision on the corruption probes against him and make it easier to tell Trump to lay off the 'deal of the century'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at his watch before delivering a statement at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem December 19, 2018.
REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Why is Benjamin Netanyahu in a rush to hold early elections, instead of carrying on with the current coalition? There are six possible reasons for the lightning campaign the prime minister declared on Monday.

1. The elections will be a referendum

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Since returning to power nearly a decade ago, Netanyahu has enjoyed singular popularity among the Israeli public, which doesn’t see any alternative to the prime minister. No matter what poll, the answer to the question “Who is most suitable to be prime minister” is, without exception, the same: Netanyahu. He wants the discussion in the present campaign to be about leadership and not about trustworthiness, ideas or policy. It’s his home field, in which he enjoys the advantage and experience over any potential rival.

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2. The opposition is decimated

Benny Ganz: An emerging rival.
Gadi Yampel

Snap elections will prevent opposition parties from uniting around a consensus platform and candidate against Netanyahu and Likud, or at least make it very hard for them to do so. Benny Gantz, who is emerging as a potential rival, will have to decide quickly whether to run and how, be it starting his own list or trying to revive the disintegrating Zionist Union. Netanyahu wants the opposition camp to be made up of as many small parties as possible, which will compete for the attention of his fans after the elections and not pose a palpable threat.

3. The attorney general will continue to hesitate

Shortening the campaign sets back the decision of the state attorney general on what to do with the pile of corruption cases against Netanyahu lying on his table. It is hard to believe that Avichai Mendelblit, the slowest draw in Jerusalem, will rush to intervene in the elections by expressing his position on the ethics of the prime minister vying for a fifth term through an announcement of the intention to file an indictment, subject to a hearing. Such an announcement would immediately become the heart of the fight. The right will claim it is a “deep-state putsch” and the left will shout that “the public has the right to know that the prime minister is corrupt.” Now the attorney general can dodge the dilemma, and the suspicions against Netanyahu, which have yet to influence his standing among his supporters, will take a back seat during the election campaign.

4. Trump’s plan will be postponed

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alongside U.S. President Donald Trump's aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Jerusalem, June 2017.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

The White House has promised to present its “deal of the century” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for two years. Netanyahu isn’t thrilled, fearing what’s written there. Even if it comes closer to the Israeli right’s position than previous American peace plans, it will disrupt his political partnership with the settlers and divide Likud. Moving up the elections will make it easier for him to tell U.S. President Donald Trump, when they meet in late March, to lay off the plan until the next government is formed. Thus, the diplomatic issue will disappear from the campaign, considering the lack of a stellar issue around which a debate can evolve.

5. The shaky economy

Netanyahu basks in statistics about economic growth, low unemployment and the highest minimum wage Israel has enjoyed since he returned to power. However, the economic winds are shifting. The global stock markets are diving, prices in Israel are climbing, and it’s better to go to the ballot box before the full force of the crisis is felt. Likud voters are especially sensitive to an economic downturn, and it would be a shame for them to flee Netanyahu for the arms of his rivals if all the indices turn from green to red.

6. An opportunity to refresh

Netanyahu promised in his election announcement that if he wins, he will continue with the same nucleus of coalition partners — with the goal of leading the country in the same direction. Netanyahu has engineered a right-wing revolution over the past four years, focusing on creeping annexation of the territories and replacing the elites in Israel. The Supreme Court changed, academia and cultural institutions have been suppressed, the left and the Arab public were portrayed as traitors and terror supporters, the media is much more right-wing and religious. However, his work is not yet complete. Construction in the settlements is being conducted sluggishly, and the military and security leadership continues to demonstrate the statesmanship of old rather than working full steam to fulfill the right’s dreams. So, work remains to stabilize and expand the revolution.

However, Netanyahu is not committed to another rightist government, despite his declarations. After the elections, he could establish a different, more moderate and centrist government, with Gantz as defense or foreign minister, and Habayit Hayehudi in a weakened position compared to the dominance of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked in the current government. Nothing contributes to the stability and power of a politician like the freedom of choice, and moving up elections gives Netanyahu an opportunity to refresh the team he will put on the court – and to muzzle his rivals on the right and left, who will want better portfolios in the coming government.