Naomi Chazan

Netanyahu’s curious case of election aversion

The experiment in artificially prolonging the life of the government has failed miserably. Now, the only way to end the policy deadlock is to go to the polls
An intrinsic hesitancy? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An intrinsic hesitancy? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli citizens were slated to go to the polls this week. But instead of exercising their preference at the polls, they are dealing with the consequences of ongoing electoral unpredictability. Key decisions are being made in light of how they will affect the timing and agenda of elections. Many are deferred for precisely these reasons. The domestic political arena is in a state of paralysis that bolsters a climate of indeterminacy. Yet Benjamin Netanyahu has given no indication that he intends to call elections before the October 2013 deadline. He clearly suffers from a curious case of election aversion. This deadlock can only be remedied at the ballot box.

Last spring, the prime minister had good cause to opt for early elections. His popularity rating was well above 50 percent; the largest party in the Knesset, Kadima, was in disarray after the fractious leadership primaries that brought Shaul Mofaz to its helm; new contenders (notably Yair Lapid) were completely unprepared; and the polls predicted the best showing for the Likud in over two decades. But at the last minute, during the night between May 7 and May 8, Netanyahu demurred. In lieu of receiving a renewed (and probably substantially reinforced) mandate, he chose to enter into what proved to be the most short-lived national unity arrangement in Israel’s history.

Netanyahu and Mofaz announce what turned out to be a very brief joint venture, May 8, 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Netanyahu and Mofaz announce what turned out to be a very brief joint venture, May 8, 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Ostensibly, the expanded government was formed in order to reach a new consensus on several pressing (and heretofore avowedly intractable) issues: ultra-Orthodox conscription, the revival of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, and the introduction of governmental reforms. It was also meant to facilitate the design of the 2013 budget and expedite its adoption. It is exactly these considerations, however, which also constituted the most compelling motive to disperse the Knesset and call for new elections: it is far easier to deal with these knotty questions at the beginning of a new term than at its close.

Something else, therefore, lies behind Netanyahu’s last-minute change of heart last May. Some pundits insist that the creation of a broad coalition at this juncture was fuelled by a desire to ensure a majority for possible military initiatives (most notably vis-à-vis Iran) — an untested hypothesis indeed. Some suggest that it came to defray the potential political damage of renewed social protests. Others attribute this move to the prime minister’s changeability: to his tendency to accept the latest advice of close advisers while discarding the conclusions of measured strategic planning. And many continue to see this double take as yet another manifestation of an innate aversion to elections (as to any action which cannot be fully controlled).

The snap decision to prolong the life of the present government served the political establishment well. With few exceptions, the opposition breathed a sigh of relief: it had no reason to applaud elections that threatened to further undermine its political power. The Likud and its leader remained in office. In retrospect, however, this move has undoubtedly backfired. Substantively, it has adversely affected the lives of most Israelis; politically, it may ultimately prove antithetical to the fortunes of Netanyahu and his ruling coalition.

The 70 long days of the Likud-Kadima government failed to resolve the festering crisis over ultra-Orthodox conscription. Sectarian divisions are more pronounced than ever; the absence of a viable replacement for the Tal Law further complicates an already-volatile situation. The promise of governmental reform is still remote. Violence is everywhere apparent: in the streets, in the settlements, in the schools and in the homes. And the economic situation is fast deteriorating. This slowdown has not only been accompanied by a rise in unemployment, in taxes and in the cost of living; it has come together with growing uncertainty and trepidation. All of these have enhanced the already-profound reluctance to embark on the formulation of next year’s budget, thrusting the political system into even greater ambiguity regarding both its direction and its durability.

The domestic political scene is thus far more inchoate in September than it was in May. No major policy decisions have been made; no new horizons have been opened; no vision has been charted. In real terms, the politics that postponed elections have yielded policy immobility internally as well as externally. The result is exacerbated insecurity. National security has been compromised by the augmentation (rather than the reduction) of freedom from fear. Human security has been assailed by the compounding of economic, social and personal threats that constrain freedom from want. In the name of an increasingly elusive quest for stability, necessary policy initiatives have been stymied and the prospects for political renewal are being curtailed.

The halo surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu cannot but be tarnished in the process. His indecisiveness is more pronounced than ever before, revealing an intrinsic hesitancy that is antithetical to bold leadership. His political acumen, only somewhat resurrected after his first term in office, has suffered a real blow. And, with a growing record of questionable calls and about-faces, his judgment is increasingly being called into question. Thus, the prime minister’s decision to forego early elections appears to be one of the gravest mistakes of his political career; it is also thrusting the country into a veritable political tailspin. Israelis currently do not have the benefit of a strong guiding hand nor the opportunity to choose their preferred policy directions.

An intrinsic hesitancy? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, August 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An intrinsic hesitancy? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, August 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The only way to rectify this situation is to call new elections. It is high time that all those involved — across the political spectrum — overcome their aversion to elections. This is especially true for the prime minister. Even though his electoral track record is only 50% (he won in 1996 and 2009; he lost in 1999 and 2006), he, more than anyone else at this point, knows full well that staying in office under present circumstances will not make him any more palatable to the voting public. In the present political deadlock, fixing a date in January or, at latest, latest February 2013 (four full years after the last elections) is the democratic thing to do.

The experiment in artificially prolonging the life of the present government has failed miserably. The negative consequences are evident on all fronts. In other parliamentary democracies, resort to the ballot box would be the natural order of the day. Israelis, even in the absence of clear alternatives, deserve the chance to decide their future.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.