Less than a week after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu struck Iran with a red marker, the dire Iranian nuclear threat has been thrust aside in the rough and tumble of Israel politics. All of a sudden, Israel has caught an acute case election fever.
By law, if the prime minister can’t get State Budget 2013 approved by his coalition partners and enacted, the government falls. The early election date most widely cited is Feb. 13, four years after the Netanyahu administration took office and eight months before its term expires.
For now, those coalition partners are digging in their heels against the deep cuts in the budget slices allotted them by the treasury (and backed by the prime minister). The largest, the defense budget, is condemned to the deepest cut of all, an estimated one billion dollars.
Are they and Netanyahu playing chicken? He has taken two weeks for a final decision on whether to appease his coalition partners with more spending money, or hold out for a slimmed-down budget and possibly face the voter before the end of his term.
But other events are also on the move. A week after Netanyahu stood before the UN General Assembly and thundered that sanctions against Iran were ineffective, the Iranian rial sank to a record 38,000 against the US dollar and its streets were showing signs of restiveness over the economic hardships they have caused.
At the same time, the Israeli prime minister announced he would soon lead a ministerial delegation to Berlin to repair some of the damage to his relations with Chancellor Angela Merkel and campaign for additional and tougher sanctions to force Tehran to give up its nuclear aspirations.
True, as Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said Tuesday, Oct. 2, “the centrifuges continue to spin” amid economic straits and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed that Iran would not give up its nuclear program notwithstanding economic duress. But if the ayatollahs were to eventually find their regime threatened by popular disaffection, they might have no choice.
In the meantime, as Israel householders rush to fortify a room in each of their dwellings against bomb blast, they find that before an early general election, they must first live through party leadership primaries which are being rushed through – just in case.
This is not the first time Netanyahu has used an early election threat for tactical gain.
Only five months ago, he announce he would face the voter sooner rather than later over the dispute with his coalition partners over the Tal Law – known as the “equality of burden” measure – for regulating the compulstory conscription of Yeshiva seminarists for military or community service.
Instead, without warning, he invited the opposition Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz to join his government.
That marriage was short-lived. After a month and ten days, it was dissolved on July 18. But it served its purpose of dropping the Tal Law dispute from the national agenda.
And Kadima and its leader will not recover in a hurry from this mortifying experience.
Now, three months later, Bibi may again be putting the country on election alert. He is widely quoted by his Likud ministers as citing Feb. 13 as polling day, but no one has heard this from the horse’s mouth. And so it may well be another false alarm.
Netanyahu’s steady partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads a Labor splinter called Independence, is now being accused in Likud circles of standing in the way of a “responsible budget” by refusing to accept reductions in defense spending. They are also suggesting that Barak, Netanyahu’s point man with the Obama administration for four years, sought to undermine the prime minister in Washington during his recent visits.
Whether this turns out to be an unfortunate misunderstanding and Netanyahu will again reach out to his partner, or decide to let him crash like Mofaz, is anyone’s guess.
For now, no one knows exactly what is on the prime minister’s carefully calculated agenda for the coming months. Will February 2013 see a general election followed by the messy aftermath of cabinet-building? Or will it presage a decisive step for preempting Iran’s advance to the threshold of a nuclear bomb?