Jeff Barak
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
January 8, 2012 - 1:00am

Despite his proud boast that the current government is the most stable in Israel’s history, there’s no avoiding the impression that Prime Minister Netanyahu is starting to gear up for early elections.

The first hint came with his surprise decision to move up the date for the Likud leadership elections to the end of this month. With general elections not scheduled until October 2013, why the hurry for new leadership elections, which traditionally are held during the six months or so before polling day?

And although his coalition is stable for now, there are a couple of bumps in the road facing Netanyahu. The first is later this month: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hearing with Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, after which Weinstein will make his final decision as to whether to issue an indictment against the foreign minister on charges of fraud, breach of trust, asset laundering and witness tampering.

If Weinstein does go ahead and charge Lieberman, and he has already said he is minded to do so, Lieberman will have to step down as foreign minister. Given Lieberman’s lack of any real accomplishments to show his electorate in terms of reducing the power of the rabbinate to make life miserable for immigrants from Russia, his forced removal from office would give him the excuse to bring down the government and campaign on the “persecution” ticket, claiming that the country’s elites are out to get him because he’s an outsider.

Of course, in terms of his record as foreign minister, Lieberman has absolutely nothing to show for his term in office, except for his disgraceful rubbishing of the government’s official policy at the United Nations early on his tenure and then his recent sickening support for Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Lieberman is probably the only person outside of the Kremlin to have called last month’s Russian elections “fair, free and democratic.”

THE OTHER major coalition challenge facing Netanyahu will be release of the state comptroller’s report on the Carmel disaster. Shas leader Eli Yishai, as interior minister for most of the past decade, is expected to come under severe criticism for his handling of the firefighting services, for which he holds ministerial responsibility.

If Yishai is forced to stand down – just as the Kahn Commission inquiry into the Sabra and Shatila massacre forced then-defense minister Ariel Sharon out of his job on the grounds of bearing indirect responsibility for the killings – then Yishai will also seek to take Shas out of the coalition and bring the government down.

And yes, Yishai too will campaign on the “persecution” ticket, claiming that the country’s Ashkenazi elite has made the Sephardi minister the scapegoat for the Carmel disaster. It promises to be a very depressing election campaign.

Within the Likud, meanwhile, we’re seeing some nervousness as to whether Netanyahu intends to secure a safe slot for Labor renegade Ehud Barak on the Likud election slate. Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who sees himself as the natural Likud candidate for the defense portfolio, has already lashed out at the idea, branding Barak a “troublemaker” who would undermine the Likud.

Putting aside Ya’alon’s strong personal interest in keeping Barak out of the party, the minister of strategic affairs was undoubtedly correct when he described the defense minister as an “electoral liability.” Labor is certainly better off without Barak, and aside from his perennial sidekick Matan Vilna’i, it’s hard to see any Labor voter transferring their loyalties because of Barak switching sides.

THEN, OF course, there’s the economy. Netanyahu has been busy recently trying to answer last summer’s social protestors by promising free education for three- to four-year-olds, tax points for working parents, the establishment of new kindergartens and day-care facilities and so on. At some point, the budget will have to be cut to pay for all this.

It’s unlikely Netanyahu will want to introduce a hard-hitting budget at the beginning of 2013 if he intends going to the polls later in the year. It’s much more reasonable to assume that he’ll call elections for the end of this year or beginning of next year and postpone the budget for afterwards, when a new government is at the height of its parliamentary strength.

But regardless when Netanyahu decides, or is forced to call the next elections, the depressing fact is that prime minister has done nothing in his term of office to improve daily life in Israel. There have been no major economic achievements or improvements in civil society to point to, and in the international arena, Israel’s standing has continued to erode.

While this past week might have seen the resumption of talks with the Palestinians, it was clear on both sides that this was more of a going-through-the-motions session than any serious attempt to restart talks that effectively ended with Ehud Olmert’s fall from grace.

Netanyahu has had the greatest gift any Israeli prime minister could wish for: a stable coalition. And he’s wasted it.


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