Tel Aviv — Nobody outside his inner circle knew it yet, but when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations late last month, it was the start of his election campaign.
He talked tough on Iran in the September 27 speech, presenting himself to Israelis as a leader who has the confidence to make demands for their security, and the guts to take out a red pen and draw the “red line” he is setting for the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program on a cartoon-style picture of a bomb.
Then, on October 9, with the image of Netanyahu explaining the Iranian threat in the starkest and simplest possible terms fresh in Israelis’ minds, he announced early elections. Instead of waiting until next fall as scheduled, he called for the elections “as soon as possible,” which is understood to mean late January.
Netanyahu is thought to have decided to move to elections while his Likud party is performing well in opinion polls, and while there is no politician in the center or on the left who the public considers prime minister material. Asked who is most appropriate to lead the country in a recent poll some 35% of respondents said Netanyahu — with second-ranked Shelly Yachimovich, leader of Labor, chosen by just 16%.
But his biggest consideration in calling early elections seems to be Iran. He is keen to get elections out of the way and be returned with a new mandate before Iran’s nuclear program reaches the “red line” after which he wants to attack. He spoke of the Iranian threat when announcing his elections, saying that he was calling them “in light of the two great upheavals around us, the security and the economic,” and is widely expected to go on as he started, focusing his campaign on Iran.
“It will be the central issue,” said Eran Vigoda-Gadot, head of the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa. “He will say that the issue needs to be given to people with experience and expertise, and that he has headed the government and has all the skills and capabilities, and that people can feel that the decision is safe only in his hands.”
It is unclear exactly what Netanyahu will argue on Iran during the campaign, especially because none of the other main parties downplay the Iranian threat. But there appears to be a clue in his newly changed tune on sanctions. His government has tended to be dismissive of sanctions against Iran, but in the weeks leading up to his announcement on early elections it showed enthusiasm for more sanctions and attributed importance to the sanctions that are in place.
In election mode, kudos for sanctions means kudos for Netanyahu, and some analysts expect discussion of sanctions to feature prominently in Netanyahu’s campaigning. Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism and at the Institute for Policy and Strategy, said: “Netanyahu will boast, quite rightly, that he provoked sanctions — that it was his propaganda campaign in the US, Europe, Russia and China that is responsible for them.”
Netanyahu’s associates are not discussing what attention will be paid to sanctions in particular during the campaign, but say that he will make capital out of the general prominence he has brought to the Iran issue. Zalman Shoval, an advisor to Netanyahu on foreign affairs and former Israeli ambassador to America, told the Forward: “Netanyahu will take credit, and rightly so, for bringing the Iran issue to the top of the international agenda, and it will probably impress the Israeli public that Netanyahu and to an extent [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak have been right all along.”