Who’s Afraid of Early Elections? Pretty Much Everyone

Cold logic says Netanyahu, Livni and Lapid have nothing to gain from new elections. But reality is often governed by a different set of rules.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid congratulate Avigdor Lieberman after he swore in as Israel's Foreign Minister in Jerusalem, November 11, 2013.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid congratulate Avigdor Lieberman after he swore in as Israel's Foreign Minister in Jerusalem, November 11, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted elections now he would have done to Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s zero-VAT housing bill what he did on Monday to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s conversion bill – buried it alive. If Livni, who is also chairwoman of Hatnuah, had wanted elections she would have used the last hazing she took from Netanyahu and immediately bolted the coalition without looking back. But he and she are not interested, at this time, in putting themselves to the test of the voters. Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid, certainly has no interest in it: He is expected to crash, or at least, to shrink in elections. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) might not crash, but it is highly unlikely that in the next Knesset he will be able to recreate his series of current achievements in reaping ministerial and parliamentary posts.

And so Netanyahu took the opportunity of his 65th birthday party Tuesday at his office to declare his lack of desire for elections. For that reason Livni announced, officially, that the issue of conversion is not a reason to leave the coalition from her point of view. What would cause her to leave the coalition, only God knows. That is the reason Lapid festively declared that the government is strong and the coalition is solid and he sees no crisis. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), the only coalition partner who does not have to worry about the voters’ verdict, is coordinated with the prime minister so that everything, ostensibly, is under control. And another thing: The government and the Knesset have not yet been in office for two years. Why should they hold elections now? What will happen afterward? Livni will become foreign minister and bring about a peace agreement? Lapid will become prime minister and hand out apartments for free? Lieberman will become defense minister and send the planes to Iran?

Thus far the cold logic. But sometimes talk, expectations and predictions fulfill themselves. And sometimes emotions play a role. And when the wagon breaks down going uphill and its shafts are loose and rattling, even a small stone can throw it off course.

Netanyahu’s choice to renege on his earlier agreement to Hatnuah MK Elazar Stern over the conversion bill is no less than strategic. It is intended to restrict the space for open accounts and bad blood between him and the ultra-Orthodox factions in the Knesset, which he will need after the next elections. The price will be paid by tens of thousands of citizens who hope to convert to Judaism but whose dream is shattered time and again by the relentless and extreme ultra-Orthodox wheeling and dealing.

Netanyahu prefers to thumb his nose at these citizens and the vast majority of the public that does not want to see the return of the ultra-Orthodox to the interior and religious services ministries. In his dream, he is already establishing his fourth government, with his beloved MKs Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism and Shas chairman, MK Aryeh Deri. But that does not mean he will be in any hurry to give up, on his own initiative, the third year of his current term. He is not a gambler and not one to hurry.

Netanyahu’s backtracking on his support for a softened conversion bill, as cynical as it may be, is not unreasonable from his perspective. He believes that the coalition is unstable. He hears that Hatnuah’s MK Amram Mitzna and Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz are threatening to leave the coalition. He heads that one of the founders of Yesh Atid, MK Ofer Shelah, is singing similar tunes. So he says to himself, if in any case the orchestra is breaking up, I should at least play a last tune that appeals to my ultra-Orthodox brethren. If it doesn’t help, it certainly can’t hurt.

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