Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to go to the polls and hold elections on September 4 came as a surprise to most Israelis.
With a total of no less than 74 members, the current government has enjoyed a degree of stability relatively unfamiliar to Israeli politics. Furthermore, with the main opposition party, Kadima, having ousted Tzipi Livni as its leader just six weeks ago and replaced her with Shaul Mofaz, who enjoys little popularity with the electorate, one could well ask why Netanyahu should be in such a hurry to go to the polls.
His coalition partners are unlikely to benefit from elections, which estimates suggest will cost the Israeli tax payer around two-thirds of a billion US dollars, and at first sight one might well wonder what is it all about?
However, the moment one begins to scratch the surface, things appear less rosy.
Firstly, there is what has become known as the Tal Law named after former Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal, who headed the commission that formulated the Bill granting ultra-orthodox, charedi Jews exemption from military service. On February 21, 2012, the High Court of Justice ruled the Law to be unconstitutional.
Any attempt to introduce legislation that would have forced the charedim to undertake military or national service of some kind would have immediately led to the collapse of the present government with the withdrawal of Shas (11 MK’s) and United Torah Judaism (5 MK’s) from the coalition. By dissolving the present government Netanyahu is buying time, because no new legislation can now be introduced during the coming months.
Of course, he could have turned to Kadima for support, but he would have been totally dependent upon them for the survival of his government and, perhaps more importantly, he is not interested in losing favour with the religious parties.
However, there are also other issues that are coming to the boil. The massive protests last summer that led to hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets calling for social justice, lower prices and a fairer share of the nation’s wealth are beginning to re-surface.
Home prices this past year have either remained static or declined all over the country with the exception of Haifa. As a result, the sale of new apartments has fallen dramatically as people wait to see what will happen with the market. Naturally, this has significantly reduced government income resulting from the taxation on property purchases. As a result, there is already talk of the need to increase taxes to balance the budget at a time when unrest in Europe is also impacting Israel’s economy.
As the Knesset goes into recess this week in the 4-month run up to the elections, we may well witness a phenomenon that is normal in most democracies but generally unfamiliar in Israel. Whereas the focus at election time has routinely been on security issues (Should there be a Palestinian state? Are the Palestinians prepared to make peace? Should Jerusalem be divided? etc.), this time we are likely to see social and economic questions as key items in party political election propaganda.
Of course, there is always a wild card in the pack. Any major development on the Iranian front, or political unrest in Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority or the Gaza Strip would immediately put all of the other issues facing Israel back on the back burner.
However, it may well just be that Israel will now begin to address some of the major demographic and economic issues that have been neglected for far too long and whose resolution is critical to the future of the Jewish state.