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Likud calls early poll, banking on hopeless opposition

This posting has 5 items:
1) Open Zion: The Election About Nothing;
2) Ynet news: Palestinians foresee no change after Israeli elections;
3) Ma’an news: Arab lawmakers say early vote boosts Netanyahu’s chances;
4) Anti-war.com:Negotiator: Early Israeli Vote May Be Exploited for Moves Against Palestinians;
5) Reuters: Iran, economy key issues in coming campaign;


The Election About Nothing
By Michael Koplow , Open Zion/Daily Beast
October 10, 2012

As was widely expected, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced [on Tuesday] that Knesset elections are going to take place within three months. The ostensible reason that Netanyahu provided was deadlock over the budget, but this was an obvious move on Netanyahu’s part given the political situation in Israel. The J14 social protests this past summer were a shadow of their previous incarnation, the situation on the southern border with Egypt appears relatively quiet for now, and Iran has been put on hold. Netanyahu’s Likud party is on top of the polls and the parties that make up the rest of his right-wing coalition bloc are all poised to do reasonably well.

More importantly though, Netanyahu’s opponents don’t appear to present much of a threat at the moment. Kadima’s erstwhile leader Tzipi Livni, who led the party to the most seats in the 2009 election, is now without a political home and has been reduced to communicating to the public through her Facebook page, and current Kadima head Shaul Mofaz is busily running the party into the ground. Labor will almost certainly do better this time than it did in 2009, but the consensus is that Shelley Yachimovich is not quite ready for prime time and needs some more seasoning before presenting a real threat to Netanyahu. While there are some plausible but remote scenarios in which Netanyahu is cast out of the prime minister’s residence, the overwhelming likelihood is that three months from now Netanyahu will remain exactly where he is.

The reason Netanyahu is calling for new elections now is primarily because the domestic political scene is so favorable for him. Much like when he engineered the unity government deal with Mofaz and Kadima last spring, there will undoubtedly be speculation that the timing of the vote is related to Iran or to the peace process. But as was the case back in May, this is not being done with foreign policy considerations in mind. Thinking about what this abbreviated election campaign will look like and what constraints will be in place when it is over yields some insights as to why this is so.

On Iran, there should be little question left that the elections are the final toss of dirt on top of what I have argued is the long-buried coffin of a strike on Iran in the next six months. Even if Netanyahu were able to give the order to launch a strike, he is historically extremely risk-averse, and would not do so with an election coming up so soon and potentially endanger his strong political position. That does not, however, mean that Iran is not going to be an issue in the campaign. Mofaz is likely to bring up what he calls Netanyahu’s “warmongering” again and again, and I expect we will hear mentions of Netanyahu’s recklessness on Iran and his related precarious management of the U.S.-Israel relationship from Yachimovich as well.

The reason for this is that a unilateral strike on Iran remains deeply unpopular with the Israeli public, and that will still be the case once the campaign is over. If things go as expected, Netanyahu will remain in office with the same coalition partners and the same security cabinet, where he will still not have the votes for a strike on Iran. The upper echelons of the IDF will still be against a unilateral strike, and there will still be enormous pressure from the U.S.—assuming that President Obama is reelected—to hold off. In short, if Likud picks up an additional seat or two and the coalition grows by 2 to 5 seats, which is what the current polls indicate will happen, the structural constraints that are in place now and that have prevented a strike from happening will have not changed at all. The idea that Netanyahu will be newly empowered when it comes to Iran after this election seems to me to be highly dubious.

A similar static dynamic is at work when it comes to the peace process. Raphael Ahren argues in the Times of Israel that one of Netanyahu’s aims in scheduling an early vote is to avoid pressure from the U.S. on negotiating with the Palestinians. But irrespective of whether Obama is a lame duck come November or is gearing up for a second term, no such pressure will be forthcoming. Obama was burned during his first term by his attempt at creating an environment in which serious negotiations could resume, and between the massive uncertainty created by Iran’s nuclear program, the civil war in Syria, and the continuing reverberations from the Arab Spring, not to mention the administration’s Asian pivot, the peace process is not going to be chief among Obama’s second term priorities. If Romney wins in November, Obama is neither going to have enough time left nor sufficient political capital in his arsenal to push Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue.

Leaving the American dynamic aside, the early Israeli elections do not signal any change coming down the road on the peace process. Before the formation of the brief-lived unity government in May, the Israeli campaign season had begun to gear up, yet there was virtually no mention of the Palestinians or the peace process by anyone, including the left-wing parties that historically have used the peace process as a campaign issue. Social and economic issues dominated the Labor and Meretz discourse, and the current election campaign is going to be fought on similar grounds. The Israeli peace camp has basically disappeared in the aftermath of the second intifada and rockets from Gaza, and elections will not change that. Should Netanyahu remain prime minister, there will be little reason for him to suddenly deal with an inept Palestinian Authority or a violent and intransigent Hamas.

It is tempting to think that Netanyahu has some big grandiose plan in mind when it comes to Iran or the Palestinians and that he is calling early elections so that he can secure a mandate for some major foreign policy moves. The reality of the situation, however, is that Netanyahu is simply trying to capitalize on his current popularity at a time when the opposition is weak and fractured, and the effect that this election will have on Israel’s foreign policy is as slight as it could possibly be.


Palestinians foresee no change after Israeli elections

Early election announcement finds Palestinians pessimistic about prospect of change in Israel’s political map, analysts say peace process will take backseat

Elior Levy, Ynet news
October 11, 2012

The decision to move up the Knesset elections will affect not only Israel’s citizens but the Palestinian Authority as well.

Since Benjamin Netanyahu’s early elections announcement Tuesday, Palestinian analysts have been trying to explain the move and its consequences. All reached the same conclusion – nothing will change.

The issue may not have gotten the main headlines in the PA’s most popular dailies but appeared in all the front pages. Meanwhile, Palestinian officials stressed the matter was an internal Israeli affair saying they have no interest in getting involved in the campaign.

Nevertheless, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed concern that the Palestinians will end up paying the cost when Israel’s policy will become more aggressive. “I hope that the Israeli parties’ campaign will not become a contest for who expands more settlements,” he said.

Erekat said that the Palestinians are used to Israeli governments avoiding the peace process. While he refused to comment on the elections, he did not miss the opportunity to criticize the outgoing cabinet.

“Given the choice between settlement and peace, this government chose settlement. The Netanyahu administration worked not only to destroy the peace process but to write out what has already been agreed on in past negotiations.”

Palestinian journalists also touched on the subject with some degree of optimism. Nasser al-Laham, chief editor of the Maan news agency, said in an editorial that no real change is expected.

He advised his readers not to get their hopes up seeing as the Israeli public has been “hypnotized” and estimated that Netanyahu will return to the prime minister’s seat.

He also predicted that Avgidor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu will emerge as the second largest party and that the leftist, Arab and haredi parties will each maintain their electoral power. “The Israeli public is becoming even more set in its mind which prevents it from enjoying the choice and versatility.”

Former Fatah man and ex-minister Dr. Sufian Abu Zaida analyzed the motives for the decision to move up the elections and claimed the move was entirely predictable.

“Unlike previous election campaigns”, he explained, “the Palestinian issue will not be in the forefront and will take a backseat to Iran and the economy.”

He estimated, much like Israeli analysts, that Netanyahu chose to hold early elections knowing he had no real rival. Nevertheless, Abu Zaida pointed to three possible scenarios: Likud primaries resulting in an ultra-right list, an Ehud Olmert political comeback and Arie Deri’s return to Shas.


Arab lawmakers say early vote boosts Netanyahu’s chances

By Ma’an news
October 11, 2012

BETHLEHEM —Some Arab members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, said Wednesday that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for early elections was a simple political calculation.

Netanyahu called on Tuesday for an early election, seeking to strengthen his political position after signalling that any military action against Iran could be months away.

Opinion polls suggest Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party will coast to victory in the national vote, which he said in a televised announcement could be held within three months.

Arab Knesset members urged Arab parties and blocs to close ranks to gain more influence on the Israeli government to improve the living conditions for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Knesset member Talab al-Sana told Ma’an that Netanyahu was concerned about his ability to approve the budget for next year, as Israel faces an economic crisis. The Netanyahu government has been unable to escape the global recession, which also affected the Palestinians.

The Israelis may re-elect Netanyahu but with a new partner in the government, and al-Sana stressed the prime minister would have a number of options other than the right. He said Netanyahu could form a centrist government without Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a far-rightist settler.

“What is needed from the Arab parties is to form an alliance to raise the participation rate in the Arab sector,” al-Sana said.

He urged Arab parties to unite to influence the future government, as they did during the Yitzhak Rabin administration in the 1990s. But he said the Arab parties would remain in opposition.

Despite reports that Ehud Olmert is formulating his re-entry into politics, al-Sana said the former Israeli premier was not likely to participate in the next election. If he does, he will offer a competitive advantage to Netanyahu, al-Sana noted, but he said it needed time.

Olmert resigned as prime minister in 2008 amid graft allegations, but he was largely acquitted of the charges at the end of a trial last July and received a suspended jail term that did not raise a legal obstacle to a political resurrection.

Ahmed Tibi, another Arab Knesset member, agreed with al-Sana that Netanyahu’s failure to approve the budget was one of several reasons behind the decision.

He says another reason for calling the vote was to strip Ehud Olmert of crucial time since his acquittal to mount a challenge. The former Israeli premier resigned amid graft allegations in 2008.

Tibi said Olmert was considering a run in the election and could surprise everyone. He said Olmert would be a competitive candidate as a centrist and former prime minister.

Regardless of the outcome, “I don’t see any changes that might occur in the Arab community,” Tibi said. “What’s needed is to end racism and raise the percentage of Arab votes.”

It is possible for Arab parties to divide the electorate by enough to reduce the right’s chances of succeeding but not much more, Tibi said.


Negotiator: Early Israeli Vote May Be Exploited for Moves Against Palestinians
Erekat: Announcement Won’t Change Plans to Seek Status Upgrade

By Jason Ditz, antiwar.com
October 10, 2012

PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat today discussed the announcement of early Israeli elections (with officials putting a likely January 15 date on them), saying he is concerned that the ruling coalition will escalate moves against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank as a political maneuver.

Erekat said he believes that the outgoing government is likely to escalate the expansion of settlements in the West Bank as well as approve major new moves toward the “Judaization” of the Palestinian portions of East Jerusalem.

Erekat’s assessment is likely reasonable, as many of the parties in the current far-right government will be running on a platform of settlement expansion and the continued forestalling of the peace process, and will likely be trying to “out-hawk” one another on the West Bank ahead of the vote, courting the settler vote.

The negotiator insisted, however, that the PLO would not change any of its positions because of the announcement, that they intend to not interfere in the vote and that they will continue to pursue recognition as a “non-member state” at the UN General Assembly.


Netanyahu announces early Israeli election

Iran, economy key issues in coming campaign

By Jeffrey Heller, Reuters
October 09, 2012

JERUSALEM,– Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Tuesday for an early election, eager to strengthen his political position after signalling that any military action against Iran could be months away.

Opinion polls suggest Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party will be the frontrunner in the national vote likely to be held in January or February, some eight months ahead of schedule.

Netanyahu, in office since 2009, said in a televised address that bickering among his coalition partners over proposed cuts in the 2013 budget was a main reason for heading to the polls.

“In the face of the turmoil around us, security and economic, it is my obligation as prime minister to put the national interest above all. Therefore I have decided for the benefit of Israel to hold elections now,” he said.

Parliament will dissolve itself in the coming days and fix the election date, with Netanyahu in charges of a transitional government until a new administration is sworn in.

A fresh ballot-box victory would mean the Israeli leader would embark on a new mandate at roughly the same time as the next U.S. president takes office.

In what appeared to be a double-barrelled approach to the coming election campaign, Netanyahu said that Israel must “ensure Iran won’t have an atomic bomb” and maintain “dynamic economic growth” that preserves Israeli jobs.

But electioneering would not necessarily have an impact on any Israeli timetable for possible military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In a speech to the United Nations last month Netanyahu signalled that a strike could wait until spring or summer when he said Tehran might be on the brink of building an atomic bomb.

Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, says Iran is enriching uranium with the aim of producing an atomic weapon. Iran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

NEW PERSONALITIES

Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, sidestepped a question over whether an election meant that any Israeli attack would be postponed at least until the results were in.

“The Iranian issue is a main issue, not only for Israel, but for the United States, Europe and Arab countries. It must continue to be addressed, and the election will not interfere with that,” Meridor told Israel’s Channel One television.

Netanyahu presides over a five-party coalition government that controls 66 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Recent opinion polls suggest Netanyahu’s Likud would capture 28 seats, putting it in prime position to lead a administration of right-wing and Jewish religious parties similar to the current governing alliance.

Rivals include Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist who now leads the left-leaning Labour party that polls predict could more than double the number of its legislators to 19. Another new contender is Yair Lapid, a popular TV personality whose recently formed Yesh Atid party promotes secular policies.

Netanyahu’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, a key strategist on confronting Iran, might be at risk. His small Atzmaut party could struggle to win any seats, according to the surveys.

Under Israeli law, Netanyahu could re-appoint Barak to the post even if he is not elected to parliament.

But friction emerged between the two men over the past several weeks after Netanyahu suggested the United States, which rebuffed his call to set a “red line” for Tehran, did not have a moral right to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.

Netanyahu has had a strained relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama and Democrats have accused him of favouring Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, an allegation the Israeli prime minister denies.

Netanyahu and Obama first clashed over Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Peace talks collapsed in 2010 over the issue, and the question of Palestinian statehood is unlikely to figure prominently in the election campaign.

Hanan Ashrawi, a West Bank-based official of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said Netanyahu “has not given any indication that he intends to improve his policies towards the Palestinians. On the contrary, his winning another term will likely see a further radicalisation of his policies.”

One question mark in the coming days is whether former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will seek to return to the political fray after being largely acquitted in a graft trial.

Olmert offered a land-for-peace plan to the Palestinians just before the corruption allegations led to his resignation in 2008. He used to lead the centrist Kadima party, whose fortunes have since plunged.

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