What Will Early Elections in Israel Mean?

BY Larisa Epatko  October 9, 2012 at 5:37 PM EDT


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

Hoping to capitalize on his general popularity and possibly avoid a budget scuffle, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday called for elections to be bumped up nearly a year and be held within the next three months.

To figure out what all this means, we spoke to Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. (Answers edited for clarity and length.)

When would elections normally be held?

Elections were legally scheduled for October 2013, but elections in Israel are rarely held at their legally designated time. They’re usually held early largely because of the coalition nature of the Israeli government. Early in the terms of the government, the prime minister is able to garner the support of the coalition partners because they have an interest in staying in the government and working together. But as the election approaches, the parties — with their divergent interests — tend to cater to their voters more and fractures tend to appear.

Also, Netanyahu in a sense is trying to stave off an expected crisis: A budget has to be passed by Dec. 31, and the last budget of the term is often the clash point. If elections are held this year, Israel might operate without a budget for a few months, but Netanyahu would be able to pass it once he became prime minister again.

Besides domestic issues, did Iran’s nuclear program come into play in his decision?

There’s some speculation that Netanyahu would like to form a government before next spring. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he spoke of the next spring and summer as the most significant time of Iran’s nuclear program (allegedly enriching uranium for an atomic bomb). Some say he wants to have a government in place to tackle that issue, especially if President Obama is re-elected. Relations between the two leaders isn’t as strong as past leaders have enjoyed. (Watch Netanyahu’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly.)

Is Netanyahu’s level of popularity also a factor?

Yes, he’s doing well in the polls as is his Likud party. There’s also a lack of alternatives. There’s no viable leader in the opposition who seems ready to be prime minister (others aren’t as popular or as experienced). Netanyahu is viewed positively because terrorism has been held at bay this year, and the economic situation in Israel isn’t as bad as in other countries.

How do Israelis view this move?

Israelis are very used to this happening. The ones I spoke to this week have said they expect it to happen, and it’s a fact of political life. Netanyahu is serving a long term, which means a stable government. But some Israelis, expecting the results to be similar to the previous term and Netanyahu will win — they think it’s a waste of money to hold early elections and there’s no substantive reason for it.

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