Elections? Ooh, That's Scary

Just last weekend, local political commentators were enthusing about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's tactical brilliance in deciding on snap elections more than a year ahead of schedule. The opposition—particularly the centrist Kadima party—was unprepared. Polls purportedly proved that Netanyahu's Likud would be the only party holding more than a quarter the seats in the next parliament; all the rest would stand in line to join his coalition. An cabinet press release on Sunday named September 4 as election day.

Two days later, the nation awoke to news that Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz had cut a deal with Netanyahu to bring his party into the current coalition. Elections can wait till late 2013, as originally scheduled. Political commentators enthused again, this time about Netanyahu's brilliance in co-opting one potential rival and frustrating others. Foreign analysts wondered whether Netanyahu's deal with Mofaz, a former general, would promote or hinder an Israeli strike against Iran.

Brilliance, schmilliance. Panicked zigzags are a prominent part of Netanyahu's resume. Fright best explains his decision to hold elections and his quick reversal.  Despite foreign obsession with the Iran question, it was a consideration only in a negative sense: Facing a veto from Washington and harsh criticism from ex-security officials, Netanyahu doesn't really have a military option right now.  So it's harder for him to use Iran to divert public attention from other issues.

Netanyahu hoped to run a quick campaign, heavy on horse-race reporting, light on substance, in which the inevitability of his victory became a reason to vote for him. But the week began with a rebellion in his own party, a crisis over settlements, bad economic news and the electoral upheaval in Europe. All signaled that the election was no safe bet.  He ran for cover.

On Sunday, the prime minister said openly why he wanted early elections: his coalition looked ready to crumble. The obvious reason was a court-imposed deadline to reduce the draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox men who spend their lives in religious study. No compromise would satisfy both the ultra-nationalists and the ultra-Orthodox in Netanyahu's government. He also expected trouble passing the next national budget. Last summer saw huge protests against policies that have battered public services and increased inequality. Now the economy is cooling. Netanyahu ideologically believes in austerity, but cutting budget-cutting would be a tough sell in parliament. The polls suggested he'd be in stronger bargaining position after an election.

Let me pause here, just for a moment, to recall the point of politics. Ideally, as political sociologist Lev Grinberg reminded me this week over coffee in a deceptively calm Jerusalem, the job of politics is to "mediate between social groups and state policy." But when the government is unable or unwilling to regulate the economy and the citizenry is unorganized, politics becomes an empty game. Politicians compete for jobs without representing the public. Israel is just one of the many countries in which such a crisis is taking place. The younger generation is particularly hard hit: getting an education no longer means getting a steady job or hoping to live as well as your parents. Beneath deceptive calm, fury builds. Last year's mass protests in Israel were a rebellion against not just against the government, but against all the parties, against failed politics.

Netanyahu's hope was to keep politics hollow. It momentarily appeared possible. Peace and the Palestinians have dropped off the agenda since President Obama failed to revive negotiations. None of the opposition parties has yet managed to remake itself as the representative of the economic protesters. The Labor Party, led since last year by social democrat Shelly Yacimovich, has the best chance—but  Netanyahu could attack Yacimovich, a former journalist, as lacking any executive experience. Mofaz has yet to convince voters that he has any beliefs. The main attraction of a new party led by Yair Lapid, another ex-journalist, is that it offers the option of voting "none of the above."

But Netanyahu's content-free campaign unraveled overnight. At a Likud congress Sunday evening, he expected to be elected by acclamation to a party post with power to change the slate of candidates for parliament. The delegates refused, demanding a secret ballot. A well organized, far-right faction of the party was over-represented in the crowd. Netanyahu looked weak, unable to control a party that resembled a rightist mob.

The next blow came from the Supreme Court. On Monday it rejected the government's unprecedented request to reopen the case of a houses built on private Palestinian land at the edge of the West Bank settlement of Beit El. Previously, the government had agreed to demolish the ten buildings; now it wanted to back out. The judgment, written by a chief justice hand-picked by the right as a strict constructionist, reads as an angry rebuke from the judicial branch to the executive branch on its responsibility to obey the courts. The deadline for razing the houses is July 1. A violent confrontation between police and settlers two months before election would push hard-line voters from the Likud to small parties of the right. Any attempt to subvert the judgment could drive off centrist voters.

To this, add the most important element: economic indicators, read in the light of European elections. Figures released this week show that Israeli tax revenues are dropping. This year's government budget deficit is climbing toward 4 percent, twice what the government planned. The crisis in the European Union, Israel's largest trading partner,  could slow the economy further. Netanyahu's natural response would be from the German playbook: Cut spending and services.

On Sunday, voters elsewhere on the Mediterranean showed austerity isn't in vogue right now.. In France, the conservative incumbent was thrown out of office and replaced with a social democrat with little executive experience. In Greece, they rejected all the established parties. Israeli voters might not behave as expected on September 4.

Netanyahu's good fortune was that Mofaz is also unprepared to face voters, and Kadima is currently the largest party in the Knesset. Netanyahu's new, larger coalition is as unwieldy as a supertanker in a storm. It must still deal with that court order to demolish settlers' houses. It must still pass a budget. If Obama is reelected, it could conceivably face new pressure to negotiate with the Palestinians. Will any of this make it easier for Netanyahu or Mofaz to win votes in a year and a half?  For both, the simple logic is that a year and a half is a long time; anything could happen.

For the leaders of the economic protests and for Labor's Yacimovich, the delay is an opportunity. The challenge for protest leaders is to get Israelis back on the streets, then channel the support into parliamentary politics. The challenge for Yacomovich is to show that her tired, history-battered party can be trusted to fight the economic battle. In electoral terms, the fake war is over and the long war has begun.

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