Israel elections loom: Why now, and will it mean anything for the peace process?

A date hasn't been set, but early Israeli elections are all but a lock.

Gali Tibbon/Pool/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a press conference in Jerusalem today. Israel's prime minister fired two senior ministers from his divided government Tuesday and said he would call early elections, plunging the country toward a heated campaign more than two years ahead of schedule.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kicked two senior coalition partners out of his cabinet today, saying in a statement he will "no longer tolerate an opposition inside the government" and saying he wanted the Knesset dissolved and new elections "as soon as possible."

The move came after weeks of growing rifts in his always-shaky coalition, inspired in part by his support for a controversial proposed Israeli-nationality law that emphasizes Israel's Jewish character at the expense, critics say, of equal rights for the country's Arab minority. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the Hatnuah Party, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid Party, were the two ministers who were sacked.

Ms. Livni and Mr. Lapid have both been furious about the nationality law, with both part of a six-member cabinet minority who opposed the nationality bill at a stormy cabinet meeting last month, against 15 votes in support. At the meeting, Lapid said Israeli founding fathers Zev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion would have opposed the bill, as would have former Prime Minister and Likud founder Menachem Begin. "Begin and Jabotinksy would not have been accepted into today's Likud," charged Lapid. Netanyahu is the current head of Likud, the majority partner in the government. 

It's hard not to wonder if Netanyahu recognized that the controversial bill, which has also brought forth rare criticism from the US and pro-Israeli American groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), would provide an opportunity for new elections, and grabbed it with both hands. The law itself, while provocative, isn't likely to change the Israeli status quo for good or ill. So why push for it?

One reason is that recent polls have showed the popularity of Netanyahu and Likud on the decline – but still high enough to win elections now. A canny political move would certainly be to the roll the dice while still reasonably confident for success, rather than wait two years when a weak economy, another war with the Palestinians, or other events could sink his party's position further.

A poll released by the Israeli daily Haaretz on Sunday found that "Netanyahu would almost certainly become prime minister for the fourth time if elections were held today." The paper argued that "it would take a political magic wand to unseat Netanyahu as prime minister, given the number of seats that would go to Likud," though Haaretz does allow that it's possible that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing ally of Netanyahu's, could possible prove a spoiler.

Recently Mr. Lieberman has, rhetorically at least, taken positions on peace with the Palestinians that are closer to those of the centrist parties headed by Lapid and Livni, and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party could in theory sway the leadership away from Netanyahu after the vote. Haaretz also assumes that Israel's ultra-religious parties will stick with Netanyahu.

What could this mean? When it comes to the all-but-dead peace process, if the vote turns out as Netanyahu hopes, he'd end up with a cabinet more supportive of expansive settlement policies in the occupied territories and for a harder line towards the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas. In a televised address to the nation this evening in Israel, Netanyahu lashed out at both Livni and Abbas, whose nickname is Abu Mazen. 

"Livni is the last to talk about responsibility. In May of this year she met with Abu Mazen against the cabinet's decision… later she added and said, while serving as justice minister: Netanyahu's boycott on Abu Mazen is foolish. Today, a little while ago, she attacked the government again. Livni and Lapid have one thing in common – they talk about new politics, but in practice they practice old politics."

He also complained of efforts by Lapid and Livni to lure the ultra-religious parties away from supporting his government. "The finance minister, who failed managing the economy, secretly joined forces with the justice minister against an incumbent prime minister – in one word, it's called a coup. It is impossible to run a government in this state." He said he wants a "real mandate to lead the people and the country."

If Netanyahu gets what he wants, he'd also have a freer hand in purely domestic matters.

The prime minister has recently feuded with Lapid over a proposed exemption from value-added tax for first-time home buyers. Lapid has pushed hard for the measure – which might prove popular in a country where soaring housing prices sparked unprecedented public protests three years ago – but Netanyahu has been staunchly opposed on grounds the proposal is both symbolic and fiscally irresponsible.

It's worth bearing in mind that Israeli elections come and go with only slightly less frequency than the years. The current government is the country's 33rd in its 66 years of independence. So whatever new elections yield, the results might not be around for long. It has been less than a year since Israel's last election, and the current government has been on the job for less than nine months.

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