JERUSALEM – Now it’s official: Israel is going to the polls. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Tuesday that the elections for the 19th Knesset will be held early next year.
“At this time, in the face of economic and security threats, it is my duty to put the nation’s best interest above all, and that means holding elections now, as soon as possible,” the prime minister said.
The elections were originally scheduled for late 2013, about eight months after the projected date of the early elections.
The prime minister’s announcement launched coalition negotiations regarding the date of the early elections. The elections will likely be held sometime between Jan. 15 and Feb. 5, 2013. Netanyahu prefers the earliest possible date.
In remarks delivered from his Jerusalem office, Netanyahu stressed his desire for a “short three-month election process, rather than a prolonged election cycle that could weigh down the economy.”
Netanyahu explained that since he has been unable to secure majority approval for the proposed 2013 budget, which currently includes austerity measures and deep budget cuts, elections were the only responsible thing to do.
Without a responsible budget, he said, Israel could be hit with a devastating financial crisis like the ones several European countries are experiencing.
“I consulted with the coalition leaders and decided that it would be impossible to approve a responsible budget,” Netanyahu said, explaining the impetus for the early elections.
“I decided that it was in Israel’s best interest to hold elections now, as quickly as possible.”
Netanyahu decided to move up the elections after having completed a month-long series of consultations and meetings with the leaders of all the coalition parties, as well as President Shimon Peres, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and the heads of the opposition parties.
The prime minister said, “in the coming months we will complete the fourth year of the most stable administration in decades. We boosted our security during a time when the Middle East is undergoing a dangerous and deep shift, and we boosted our economy in the midst of another crisis – the ongoing global economic crisis that has toppled European economies.”
While formulating the announcement he later delivered from his office, Netanyahu and his staff also considered possible dates for the upcoming election. By law, elections can only be held 90 days after the Knesset is dispersed. The Knesset itself must convene to legislate the dispersal.
Aside from Netanyahu’s official reason for pushing up the elections, experts believe the prime minister is eager to hold elections to prevent new parties, namely headed by former Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni, former prime minister Ehud Olmert or former interior minister Aryeh Deri, from gaining traction.
Netanyahu said Tuesday during closed meetings with fellow Likud members that his guiding principle as Likud chairman was that he has “the most experience. At this time, anyone who takes the country’s reins needs to have experience. I have served as prime minister twice, and have held a long list of senior posts in political and economic settings. Neither Shelly Yachimovich nor Yair Lapid can say that.”
Netanyahu was referring to Labor chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich and journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, who are seen as two of Netanyahu’s main rivals for the prime minister’s seat, though forecasts predict a landslide victory for Netanyahu.
As he cemented the decision for early elections, Netanyahu also signaled he would announce early Likud primaries, to be held at some point next month. Netanyahu vowed he would not secure any seats on the Knesset list in advance.
Meanwhile, an aide to former prime minister Olmert said Olmert was considering running for office to challenge Netanyahu.
Though recently cleared of the most serious of the bribery allegations that forced him out of office in 2009, Olmert is still bogged down in a separate bribery trial that leaves his political future in doubt. Yet many consider him the candidate with the best chance of replacing Netanyahu.
His former cabinet secretary and confidant, Yisrael Maimon, told Army Radio that “he is pondering it and the political system is putting a lot of pressure on him.” Olmert was deeply unpopular while in office, but he has recently enjoyed renewed popularity and support.
(Israel Hayom, distributed exclusively in the U.S. by JNS.org.)
Shlomo Cesana and Mati Tuchfeld