The other big development over the weekend was the governing coalition, which has been fraying at the seams, nearly bursting apart and the unofficial announcement of early elections. It appears that Netanyahu wants Knesset elections to be held on either August 14 or September 4, which pulls the rug out from under Shaul Mofaz and Kadima and allows Bibi to capitalize on his current wave of popularity. The reason for the early elections though is that Netanyahu is afraid that his coalition will not last much longer past the summer. Avigdor Lieberman has threatened to break the coalition apart and bring down the government over the Tal Law, which was ruled unconstitutional but which Netanyahu has promised to somehow reauthorize, and over the weekend Lieberman announced plans to introduce his own bill dealing with Haredi military exemptions. Lieberman’s bill would take away welfare payments from anyone who does not serve in the military or perform national service, which is of course unacceptable to coalition partners Shas and UTJ. Lieberman says he is going to introduce his bill on May 9, while Netanyahu has asked him to wait until August which is when the Tal Law expires and when Netanyahu conveniently wants to hold elections. Ominously for Bibi’s plans, Lieberman also declared that his obligation to the coalition was over, and does not look like he is going to dissuaded from introducing his bill and letting the chips fall where they may. Barak has also announced plans for his own Tal Law alternative that would exempt 400 Haredi students from serving in the army each year as compared to the currently 60,000+ that are exempt, which is naturally going to be equally unacceptable to the coalition’s Haredi parties.
There are also serious differences over settlements which have been papered over but are becoming tougher to ignore. After the government announced that it was not going to comply with the High Court’s order to demolish the Ulpana neighborhood, the court granted it a 60 day extension but this is not going to be enough to make all the coalition partners live together as one happy family. Shas introduced a bill yesterday that requires the Interior Ministry and Religious Services Ministry – both of which it currently controls – to sign off on the destruction of religious structures, which is a shot at Barak and his authority as defense minister over settlements. While the rift over settlements is not nearly as large a problem for the coalition as the secular-religious divide since it basically isolates Barak and Atzmaut rather than pitting Likud and Shas on one side against Yisrael Beiteinu and Atzmaut on the other, the constant calls from other members of the government for Barak to step down and leave the coalition is bound to take a toll on any unified sense of purpose that exists. And In case all this wasn’t enough, Kadima, Labor, Meretz, National Union, and Balad are all introducing no-confidence motions in the Knesset next week (originally scheduled for today but postponed out of respect following the death of Ben-Zion Netanyahu, Bibi’s father).
In light of all the above, the early elections gambit is unavoidable, but it may not turn out as favorably as Netanyahu wants. While elections in August do not give the opposition parties much time to organize, it also means that they will take place in the midst of social protests over Haredi exemptions, state resources going disproportionately to settlements, and the exploding cost of living, and Mofaz has declared his intention to lead this protest movement. Without a few additional months to blunt the effects of this, Netanyahu may be facing voters at the height of their anger at the government. The most current Israel Hayom poll gives Likud 31 seats, which is only a 4 seat gain over what it has right now; it’s quite conceivable that this figure drops over the summer, and then Netanyahu does not get the benefit of the recovery that would likely happen by October. He is taking a risk based on the timing of ceding real ground to Labor and to Kadima, and a larger share of seats for those two parties will make it harder for him to form a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu (which is not going to agree to serve again if Haredi parties are included).
Finally, to connect this post with my previous one, early elections are going to impact the Iran decision as well by making the chances of a strike more remote. As I have stressed before, Netanyahu’s career demonstrates that he is risk-averse, and I don’t think there is any way that he takes the chance of a strike on Iran going poorly or igniting a war with Hizballah in the north if there are going to be early elections. This is particularly the case now that there is a chorus of current and former defense officials weighing in against a strike right now. With his position as prime minister at stake and so many doubters speaking up, Netanyahu is not going to attack Iran a mere three months before an election when public opinion polls show that Israelis are decidedly lukewarm to the idea of an Israeli strike to begin with.