JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed Sunday he is moving to dismantle what has been considered one of the more stable coalition governments in Israel’s history and calling for early elections in September.
The decision to move up balloting originally scheduled for next year came as little surprise; it had been rumored for months. Yet it marked a premature end to Netanyahu’s right-wing government, which many expected to survive a full four-year term -- a rarity in a country where most governments have lasted about two and a half years.
The move had some Israelis scratching their heads because it was not precipitated by a political scandal or fractured coalition, which typically lead to an early vote. Instead it appears to be a strategic decision by Netanyahu with the support of the major political parties.
The prime minister, who will be seeking his third term, wants to strike while his popularity is strong and there are few viable opposition leaders to challenge him, analysts say. Recent polls suggest his Likud Party will receive the most votes in the next election, though not enough to form a majority without partners.
“Netanyahu is popular in the polls for the moment," said Hebrew University political science professor Avraham Diskin. “This is a convenient time for elections. Of course, moving up elections is always a gamble.”
In the past, Israeli voters have defeated sitting prime ministers who called for early elections without good cause, he noted.
Analysts say Netanyahu would prefer to face reelection before the U.S. vote in November. Given the sour relations between Netanyahu and President Obama, strategists say the prime minister fears a reelected Obama might work to defeat him.
Others say Netanyahu is hoping his reelection would provide a mandate for his aggressive stance against Iran. He has threatened to attack Iran in order to destroy the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, which both the U.S. and Israel suspect is a front for developing weapons despite Tehran's protestations that it is developing civilian uses.
Israel’s opposition parties have voiced enthusiasm for early elections. Both the centrist Kadima Party and left-leaning Labor Party have little to lose given that neither is part of the current government and both have been marginalized. The parties also have newly-elected leaders who are anxious to test out their popularity at the polls.
It’s possible that the same conservative coalition that currently rules Israel will remain in place, including Likud, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitinu and the religious Shas Party.
But the make-up of the next coalition may be altered by the upcoming debate over whether to draft the country’s ultra-Orthodox young people into the army. Currently most religious students are exempted by law, but the Supreme Court recently ruled that the policy was unfair to other young people.
Netanyahu and Lieberman have both expressed support for extending the draft or some form of national service to all Israelis, but religious parties are opposed.
As a result, some speculate that the next government could see Netanyahu replace Shas with either Kadima or Labor, which also support extending the draft.
Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich told an Israeli television station over the weekend that she would consider joining Netanyahu’s next government if she were promised a role in shaping policy, including accelerating efforts to reach a peace deal with Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s current coalition government has been criticized as failing to propel peace talks. In an editorial this weekend about the coalition’s expected demise, the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper called it “one of the worst governments the country has ever had, if not the worst.”
Some predict the prime minister will try harder next time to form a unity government with the other major parties.
“Netanyahu will seek a center-leaning government, unlike the current one," said Amit Segal, political correspondent for Israel’s Channel 2.
If reelected, Netanyahu would be on the path to becoming Israeli’s second-longest-serving prime minister after founding father David Ben-Gurion, who spent about 13 years in power. By the time Netanyahu’s current term ends this fall, he will have served six and a half years.
--Edmund Sanders. Batsheva Sobelman contributed to this report.
Photo: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem late last month. Credit: Associated Press / Ronen Zvulun