Obama's bid for the Knesset

November 24, 2016 23:22

The Knesset elections that Bibi Netanyahu has now engineered for next March are, strictly speaking, unnecessary. That doesn't mean that he was wrong to have engineered them. The pretext he employed was the disloyalty of two of his Cabinet colleagues, justice minister Tzipi Livni and finance minister Yair Lapid, whom he fired last week, accusing them of plotting to overthrow him. Whether such a plot ever existed I know not. But it's certainly true that Lapid and Livni have been publicly bad-mouthing the government.

Three years ago, Lapid formed Yesh Atid ("There's a future"), a rightish-wing but secular nationalist party that won 19 seats in the 2013 Knesset elections. Livni, a veteran politician of the broad left, is leader of the minuscule Hatnuah party (6 seats), whose distinguishing features have been to prohibit free distribution of plastic bags in grocery stores and a delusional preoccupation with peace-making.

In firing Livni, Netanyahu cited her unauthorised May 2014 meeting with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and her criticism of Netanyahu's refusal to follow her lead. In firing Lapid, Netanyahu drew attention to Lapid's unwillingness to support controversial "Jewish state" legislation.

Here in the UK, our experience of coalition government is different - and more limited. In the same week in which Netanyahu fired Livni and Lapid, David Cameron did not fire Business Secretary Vince Cable, who launched a blistering public attack on Chancellor George Osborne's determination (outlined in his Autumn Statement) to cut the UK budget deficit within four years. Nor did Cameron fire the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who deliberately chose to absent himself from Parliament when this Statement was delivered.

So we have to ask why Netanyahu really engineered the break-up of his government, and why he is relishing the forthcoming contest for Knesset seats. In his televised address to the Israeli public (December 2) he told us why: "Frequent elections are not a good thing, but a government with no governability … is much worse. Swift elections must be held, and a new, united and strong government must be formed. For that, you need a large ruling party… I am asking you to elect the ruling party under my leadership in order to give me a real mandate to lead."

Netanyahu wants a new coalition to follow his philosophy

Benjamin Netanyahu, in other words, wants and hopes for an electoral outcome that will result in a coalition government composed of fewer parties, and that these parties will be distinguished by their adherence to a similar underlying philosophy.

What that government will look like is far too early to predict. But we might note that a recent poll suggests that, had elections for the 120 Knesset seats been held at the time at which Netanyahu dismissed Livni and Lapid, the most likely outcome would have been a centre-right government commanding 64 seats, and consisting of Netanyahu's Likud, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu, Habayit Hayehudi (successor to the old National Religious Party) and two ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Netanyahu would certainly feel more comfortable heading such a coalition. While Netanyahu's personal popularity had certainly fallen in recent months, he remains well ahead of his rivals.

This news will not have been welcomed in the White House. US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu are not (to put it mildly) the best of friends.

We can therefore expect that the American government will try, somehow, to influence the outcome of the March 2015 Knesset poll, perhaps by orchestrating leaks focused on the possibility of limited but real economic sanctions against Israel should an Israeli government be elected that is committed to the continuation of home-building programmes in Judea and Samaria.

As recently as last week, the White House refused to deny rumours that sanctions are on Obama's agenda. It's just as well, therefore, that Obama's Democrats no longer control either House of the Congress.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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