Middle East In Focus
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, beset by legal trouble, has long hinted at the possibility of calling early elections. Mr. Netanyahu believed that a fresh electoral mandate would strengthen his position against those seeking his prosecution for corruption. But, after a series of talks with his political allies, Mr. Netanyahu has decided to maintain the status quo. Israeli observers reacted with relief, asserting that calling early elections would have proven destabilizing while providing little potential upside for the embattled prime minister. Still facing legal trouble, however, some now fear what Mr. Netanyahu’s next move may be.
Reacting to the news that the political crisis had been resolved without early elections, the Jerusalem Post editorial staff congratulated the various politicians for doing “the right thing…. Disrupting a government mid-term is damaging on a number of levels: It hurts governance by preventing our elected officials from following through on their policy decisions; it is expensive economically because it postpones passage of the state budget and uses taxpayers’ money for campaign expenses; it distracts political leaders from the real issues facing Israel – defense, the economy, foreign affairs – and focuses instead on election season hype..... Though their motivations were not pure, politicians did the right thing in resolving the current crisis. They prevented the untimely demise of the government and the holding of a superfluous election at a time when Israel faces major challenges on a number of fronts.”
For Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yoaz Hendel, the decision was the right one, as calling for early elections would have done little to solve the prime minister’s legal troubles: “The greatest absurdity in calling elections that are based entirely on Netanyahu's investigations, and are seen as a sort of vote of confidence in him, is that they will have no effect on the results of the legal proceeding against him… On the contrary, Netanyahu is solidifying the legal process. The more he undermines the credibility of law enforcement systems, they will be forced—for fear of making a mistake—to cement the evidence and testimonies against him so that no court will have any hesitations.... Although the law allows a prime minister to remain in office while walking in and out of courts, that’s an unlikely and unreasonable scenario. And if it does happen, the coalition he forms won’t survive public criticism.... In any event, despite the clear direction, a mandate from the people—if he receives one—won’t change anything.”
Some Israeli observers, including Moran Azylay, have suggested that dissolving the Knesset would have been risky for Mr. Netanyahu, especially against the background of a gathering legal storm: “Netanyahu understands that his difficult legal battle must be fought from the position of a strong leader with a political clock that has just started ticking. Put simply, he needs a new term.... Netanyahu also knows that investigations during an election campaign won’t be pleasant. Who knows what the future holds, what will be leaked, what kind of information the state’s witnesses are providing, what kind of recordings might suddenly emerge. Netanyahu's risk of losing the elections—a scenario which currently seems completely unrealistic—is huge. He might have to deal with his legal fate without the courtesy and respect an interrogated prime minister is unofficially entitled to.”
Now that early elections have been taken off the table, Times of Israel contributor Yigal Walt notes that the Israeli prime minister may “finally consider a truly dramatic move to ensure his political survival. Hence, for the first time under his long rule — and even absent the spectre of early elections — Israeli annexation of West Bank territories may be squarely on the table.... Imposing Israeli sovereignty in some areas of the West Bank could pay significant dividends for the beleaguered Netanyahu. Such a move would shore up his right-wing base, position him as the undisputed champion of the settlers, and mollify coalition partners pressing for more action. Moreover, annexation will likely elicit a left-wing outcry, allowing Netanyahu to reinforce the anti-leftist message that has been so effective for him in drumming up rightist support.”
In an op-ed for Jordan Times, Ramzy Baroud argues that, with or without Mr. Netanyahu, the position of leading Israeli politicians towards the Palestinian question is likely to remain unchanged: “As Israel’s Jewish population continues to move to the right, the country's political ideology has been repeatedly redefined in the last two decades. Now, a negligible 8 percent of Israelis see themselves as leftwing, while a whopping 37 per cent consider themselves rightwing…. However, when it comes to Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, leading Israeli politicians are, more or less, the same. Regardless of Netanyahu’s political future, Israeli policies towards Palestinians will remain unchanged, leaving Palestinians with the urgent responsibility of developing their own unified political strategy to counter the Israeli occupation, human rights violations and illegal Jewish settlements.”
To complicate matters further, Haaretz News’s Amos Harel reports that important developments are underway within the Palestinian Authority: “In recent months there has been a deterioration in the health of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who will be 83 at the end of the month.... Palestinian activists opposed to Abbas’ regime claim that he’s ill and getting worse. There was even a claim on social media that he was suffering from cancer of the digestive system. This claim was never confirmed.... But as Abbas’ health gets worse, the battle among the many contenders hoping to succeed him will intensify. There are nearly 10 Palestinian politicians and security officials who see themselves worthy of the job, and there could be temporary alliances formed between some of them in an effort to win the leadership of PA.”