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.”
Shoval continued: “Netanyahu will say ‘we made our case, we stood up even to our best of friends [i.e. America] and therefore we deserve another four years.”
Karmon predicted that the results of the American Presidential race will help Netanyahu’s campaign — whether the victor is Republican Mitt Romney, who on October 9 declared himself on the same page as Netanyahu regarding Iran, or Barack Obama with whom Netanyahu has a troubled relationship on Iran. “If Romney wins then he will present himself as politician who can have the ear and support of the new President,” said Karmon. “And if Obama wins he will say he’s the only one who can stand up to Obama.”
Karmon said that Netanyahu faces a similar win-win scenario in terms of Iran’s conduct. If Iran slows down its nuclear project as a result of international pressure Netanyahu will claim success for his lobbying; if Iran continues or accelerates its nuclear project, this will “boost” Netanyahu by making his credentials on Iran seem all the more valuable.
But some analysts are unsure that an Iran-focused campaign presents such guaranteed success for Netanyahu. Defense and public opinion expert Yehuda Ben-Meir, senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a former deputy foreign minister, commented: “The Iranian issue is a double-edged sword that can be used against him as well.” The Israeli public is split on the wisdom of a unilateral strike, said Ben-Meir, and focusing on Iran could lead to people perceiving Netanyahu as “trigger happy” and shunning him at the ballot.
Ben-Meir also believes that for practical reasons Iran will not be the lead issue for the campaign, simply because there isn’t enough for Netanyahu to say on the subject beyond what he has already said to sustain a campaign. “He’ll finish it in one minute so how can he use up the other three months? “ he asked rhetorically.
Ben-Meir expects Netanyahu to keep the Iran issue constantly in the background, highlighting why he thinks the country needs to hold on to him and drawing attention to his statesmanlike qualities, but said that campaigns tend to be dominated by issues that are more ideological than strategic. Ben-Meir thinks that the issue of the territories will emerge as the main election issue. “I think this will be Likud’s calling card — the claim that the left will divide Jerusalem and go back to 1967 borders,” he said.
Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, also thinks that Iran won’t be the lead issue. Inbar, who has been suggesting a strike on Iran for seven years, said that he expects the drafting of Haredim to the army and other domestic matters to take center stage. “I think that Netanyahu has lowered the line on the Iran issue slightly,” he said.
Shoval said that he believes domestic issues will be “just as central even more so” than foreign policy.