JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he wants to hold early parliamentary elections, a move intended to capitalize on his current strength as Israel builds its case for international action against Iran’s nuclear program.
In a speech at a party convention in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu stopped short of announcing elections for Sept. 4, as he was expected to do. But he expressed support for a four-month campaign, saying signs of instability in his coalition indicate that waiting until the scheduled election date of October 2013 could “damage the state.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party holds a clear lead in opinion polls, and most analysts predict a comfortable victory that will allow him to handpick which elements of Israel’s divided opposition will be part of his ruling coalition. Some observers say that could lead to a more centrist alliance than Netanyahu’s current coalition, in which small pro-settlement and religious parties hold significant sway.
The widely expected decision to move up elections has reshuffled speculation about the timing of a potential Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear sites. Although Israeli officials insist that the election cycle will play no part in their decision, many analysts say the caretaker government will be too focused on campaigning to gamble on a complex military operation that could fail.
But the expected new election date also has some commentators positing that an emboldened Netanyahu might be planning to attack Iran after being reelected but before the U.S. election in November. That would give a campaigning President Obama, who has endorsed diplomacy and sanctions as a solution to the Iran issue, little option but to support the Israeli offensive, they say.
More broadly, the election timing is viewed as a bid by Netanyahu to renew his solid mandate before it can be clouded by thorny debates looming on the horizon. The right-wing governing coalition is particularly shaken by disputes over exemptions from military service for ultra-Orthodox Israelis; deliberations over a new budget also are expected to be divisive.
“We have seen many signs that the stability has begun to waver, and political instability always brings extortion [and] populism, which harm security, the economy and society,” Netanyahu, who was elected in 2009, said in his speech, according to the Reuters news agency.
Organizers of last summer’s mass demonstrations are considering taking to the streets again to protest Israel’s high cost of living, a topic that is more likely to dominate the election than Iran, said Amit Segal, a political correspondent for Channel 2 news.
“It’s going to be about economy, it’s going to be about social justice,” Segal said in a conference call with international reporters.
But early polls would also give leverage to Netanyahu over two contentious issues: peacemaking with the Palestinians and the wisdom of a strike on Iran.
Many Israeli observers expect that Obama, if reelected, would renew pressure on Netanyahu to halt settlement construction in the West Bank and restart peace talks, which have been all but frozen since 2010. For now, the Palestinian issue looks as though it would hardly figure in a four-month summer election, said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Hebrew University and head of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank.
In addition, a growing number of veteran security officials are publicly questioning the judgment of Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Israel views as an existential threat. Most recently, the former head of Israel’s domestic intelligence service, Yuval Diskin, said the two are driven by “messianic” motives. He said a strike on Iran would accelerate, not halt, the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
“Netanyahu wants to get the vote out of the way to have a mandate to attack Iran,” Gideon Levy, a columnist for the daily newspaper Haaretz, wrote Sunday. “Any caveat about the potential dangers can be forgotten, including those offered by world leaders and former security officials.”