As Israeli Elections Loom, Netanyahu Has No Fear

The Netanyahu government is sitting pretty, with good polling and quiet in the coalition, however some big challenges are coming up this summer, including settlement evacuations, expiration of the Tal Law and an expected renewal of the social protest.

One evening in late November 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak took the Knesset dais. That day several draft bills calling for disbanding the Knesset had passed a preliminary vote in the plenum.

"You want elections? There'll be elections," Barak said defiantly to the MKs.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is stable. His party is behind him. The public opinion polls are favorable. He could certainly make the same statement as Barak, but from an entirely different position.

"I have no interest in elections," Netanyahu tells interlocutors. "On the eve of the recess I'm under the impression that my partners aren't eager for elections either. If there's a desire to overcome disputes and to carry on, we will find a way. If there's no such desire, fine. I'm not afraid of elections. I'm prepared for elections."

The problem is the upcoming Knesset recess, in late July. Two powerful political bombs are scheduled for then: the expiration of the Tal Law, which exempts most ultra-Orthodox men from military service; and the evacuation of the outpost of Migron. In addition, over the two-month summer recess, the government must approve the 2013 draft budget, which will then be brought before the Knesset for an initial vote when it reconvenes in mid-October.

And we haven't yet discussed the test of evacuating "ulpana hill" in Beit El, which the court ordered by the end of the month. Nor have we discussed whether Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are capable of bombing Iran before an election, considering that the success of such an attack is far from certain, and a failure could cost them the government.

In private conversations, Netanyahu admits that the budget and the Tal Law are tough issues, and will determine his government's life expectancy. He plans to place a government-sponsored or Likud-sponsored draft bill to replace the Tal Law on the Knesset agenda only toward the end of the summer session, in July. If his government is fated to crumble over the Haredi draft, it's better it do so on the eve of the summer recess, a period when there won't be any no-confidence votes. Thus it can survive for another two and a half months, until the Knesset is dispersed.

The same is true for the budget: If he discovers in August or September that his government partners are not interested in approving a restrained budget, he will come to the Knesset at the start of the session in mid-October, and deliver the speech of the responsible adult who is unwilling to be a party to financial recklessness. "You want elections? Then there'll be elections," he'll tell them.

The next protest

And of course, there's the social protest. There is nobody in the political establishment who isn't wondering what the coming summer will bring. "If the protest is over real issues, we'll take care of the real issue," Netanyahu says to those close to him. "Fuel, that's a real issue."

Someone told him this week: "Another protest, on the eve of the election campaign, will probably be very political as well. Political interests, forces and factors will be behind it."

"If they are, they'll be exposed," replied Netanyahu.

But the next protest, if it comes, will look different. It will also involve the failure to draft young Haredim. MK Shaul Mofaz, the opposition leader and Kadima's new chairman, is getting ready. This week he posted the following status on his Facebook page: "The Tal Joke." He stated, "Soon this joke will come to an end. We're promoting the universal service law."

On Friday the "suckers compound" will reconvene, this time in Jerusalem. The leaders of the campaign, Boaz Nol and company, seek to sign 1 million people to their manifesto calling for the draft of Haredim. They will be assisted by former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, National Student Union chairman Itzik Shmueli, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, former Knesset Member Geula Cohen and other public figures. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is also on board. Meanwhile, the Haredim are setting up trenches.

Various members of the political establishment are warning Netanyahu against complacency. The political map will not remain as it is today, they tell him. There are new players: Aryeh Deri, Yair Lapid and Mofaz. One can only guess whom Lieberman will choose to partner with.

Netanyahu replies with a story: When he was a young staff sergeant in the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal, he was sent to an officers training course. He had meager command and combat experience compared to other cadets from the unit. His older brother, Yonatan, who was a commander in the unit, wanted to practice with him before his exams. He sat him down behind a hill and told him: "In front of you in the wadi is deployed an enemy force. You're at the head of a squad. You have to surround the force and destroy it. What do you do?"

Netanyahu surveyed the area and replied: "I walk here, crawl there, move from this direction, outflank from the other direction, silently come from behind and destroy them." "A good plan," said his brother. "But you forgot one thing: To check occasionally and see what the enemy is doing. Maybe he's moving too."

"My political rivals think I'm not moving," says Netanyahu, "that I'm standing still and only they are moving. They're wrong. In my previous term as prime minister I stood in place. No longer. This term I've learned to move. To surprise."

He cites as an example the move to split the Labor Party, which he concocted with Ehud Barak. He is proud of this maneuver, of the secrecy, of the shock to the political establishment that January 2011 morning when Barak called a press conference and dumped Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog, Shelly Yacimovich, Ofer Eini and all the others who had planned to oust him from the government. Without the maneuver by Barak and his four loyal party colleagues, elections would have been held a long time ago - maybe even at the height of last summer's social protest.

Another element working in Netanyahu's favor is the instability in the Middle East, specifically in Egypt, and the growing extremism in the Palestinian Authority. "Half the Palestinian population is ruled by extremist Islamists. Even if I sign a treaty with the Palestinians, [the extremism] won't disappear. It may even become worse," he says. He considers that as a kind of insurance policy for the right wing's hegemony over Israel's political map.

And he'll always have Iran. In his speech in Yad Vashem on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, he once again made a sweeping, insistent comparison of contemporary Iran and Nazi Germany, and stated that a leader is obliged not to hide the truth from his country's residents. He upped the ante by another notch.

Top seat

In politics, party leaders frequently resign at the beginning or in the middle of a term. Their replacements become No. 1. However, seating on the faction's Knesset benches is determined only on the basis of the MKs' order on the original slate. In the 1999 elections, Ariel Sharon appeared in eighth place on the Likud list. In September that year he was voted chairman of the Likud movement after Netanyahu retired to private life. Likud faction chairman Reuven Rivlin asked Silvan Shalom, then No. 2 on the slate, to let Sharon sit in the first seat. Shalom agreed.

In May 2003 Amram Mitzna resigned from the Labor Party leadership. Shimon Peres was elected chairman. Mitzna was asked to move over one chair so that Peres could have top seat. He also agreed. There was a similar exchange between Yossi Beilin and Haim Oron, when the latter replaced the former as Meretz leader.

On March 27 this year, Shaul Mofaz was elected chairman of Kadima. Two days later he was appointed opposition leader. His predecessor Tzipi Livni went home to Ramat Hahayal. She began a marathon of daily status reports on her Facebook page, attending private events (weddings ), semi-private events (Mimouna ) and official events (the ceremony yesterday at Yad Vashem ).

That is not the behavior of a politician who is about to retire. On the other hand, Livni told Yedioth Ahronoth reporter Dana Spector that she is only waiting for the day when politics will be history for her.

On the third hand, what was she doing at the Mimouna party, which she attended with her political adviser, or at the Yad Vashem ceremony? On the fourth hand, various sources who speak to her regularly still believe she is more likely to resign from the Knesset than remain in the Kadima faction under Mofaz.

Since the brief, cold phone conversation between them the evening of the vote, the two haven't exchanged a word. Associates of Mofaz want him to take over the opposition leader's seat - where Livni now sits - before the Knesset summer session opens April 30. Without her consent, the move, which involves a technical change in the electronic voting board, cannot be implemented. Mofaz's associates have been trying to reach her or her staff members in order to obtain her consent. Livni hasn't been answering.

One of the senior members of the Mofaz camp proposed an idea this week, in a conversation with a senior Knesset official: that the faction issue a unilateral announcement that Mofaz will be taking that seat as of Monday, April 30. He was told that the seat is reserved for Livni as long as she wants it, as opposed to the Knesset office reserved for the opposition leader, which Livni also has not yet vacated.

Livni's staff was told this week that Mofaz will enter the office on April 30. As far as the Knesset seat is concerned, the Knesset and the Kadima faction are waiting for Livni. And it looks like she's enjoying letting her successor sweat.