Tel Aviv Diary: Why Is Bibi Considering a Snap Election?

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang talks with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Great Hall of the People on March 20 in Beijing. Marc Schulman writes that the more likely scenarios behind Netanyahu's interest in new elections are some combination of: (a) the investigation into allegations of corruption against him that seem to be nearing their completion, and, or, (b) the political/diplomatic complications brought to Netanyahu by President Donald Trump. Lintao Zhang/Getty

Is Israel headed toward new elections? Or not?

Is Israel about to find itself in a military confrontation with a newly resilient Syrian government? Or not?

Is Israel headed into a new round of a military confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip? Or not?

These are all questions that suddenly have found their way into the center of the public discourse in Israel.

The question of elections burst onto the political scene this past Saturday night. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was about to depart for Beijing, Netanyahu warned that if Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon did not agree to the prime minister's demand to stop the new Public Broadcasting Authority (created by Netanyahu's government) from starting to broadcast, he would call for new elections.

Netanyahu has been fighting the start of broadcasts by the new authority for the past six months (after becoming convinced this authority might be too independent.) Kahlon has opposed elimination of the Authority, both on fiscal grounds, as hundreds of millions of shekels have already been invested in the new authority and hundreds of people have been hired, as well as on the grounds of questioning what sort of government abolishes an organization that that government itself created.

Last week, an announcement was made asserting that Kahlon and Netanyahu had reached an agreement, and that the coalition crisis was over. So what changed?

No one knows for sure. Moreover, no one is really certain whether Netanyahu truly wants new elections now. What everyone seems sure of is the fact that Netanyahu's sudden interest in new elections was not triggered by the impending opening of the new broadcast authority—an  issue most Israelis do not understand at all.

Related: Tel Aviv Diary: Trump and Bibi cling to each other

Of course, those who maintain that the new authority could not have sparked Netanyahu's impetus to set an election in motion ignore the fact that the last surprise election—held in Israel just two years ago—was called by Netanyahu because he feared a law was going to be passed that would limit the power of Yisrael Hayom (the right-wing mass circulation newspaper, owned by Sheldon Adelson, who has been Netanyahu's biggest supporter.)

The more likely scenarios behind Netanyahu's hypothetical interest in new elections are some combination of: (a) the investigation into allegations of corruption against him that seem to be nearing their completion, and, or (b) the political/diplomatic complications brought to Netanyahu by President Donald Trump.

The Netanyahu investigations, which have been ongoing, and in which the Prime Minister has been interrogated four times, are said to be near the stage in which the police are likely to recommend Netanyahu be charged, on at least some of the allegations.

A police recommendation to indict does not necessarily mean Netanyahu will be indicted. The attorney general has to review the case first, and only afterward will the attorney general decide whether or not to indict—a process that can, and likely will, take many months.

It is also not clear that calling for new elections would force a delay to the criminal legal process. If Netanyahu is re-elected, despite the lengthy investigation, it might strengthen the prime minister's argument that even if indicted, he should not resign unless convicted. (Israeli law requires cabinet members to resign if indicted, but the protocol remains unclear regarding a prime minister).

The second scenario challenging Netanyahu relates to the surprise visit by Jason Greenblatt, President Trump's envoy, seeking to negotiate a Middle East peace agreement.

A few short weeks ago, the Trump election was greeted with nearly messianic joy amongst Israel’s right-wing. They believed all they had to do was “wait out” the Obama administration, and once Trump took office they would be able to do whatever they want—i.e., increase settlements, annex parts of the West bank and make their vision a reality.

Those dreams were partially shattered at the first Trump-Netanyahu meeting after the election, with Trump so very publicly calling on Netanyahu to hold back settlement building. However, it was Greenblatt's visit that ended any misconception that Trump’s election would be a boon to the settlers.

There was a mistaken view held by Israel’s right-wing that since Greenblatt is himself an Orthodox Jew, he would “naturally” agree with their worldview. They miscalculated on two levels: first, not all Orthodox Jews agree with the settlers; and second, Greenblatt did not become vice president of the Trump organization, and its chief legal officer, without understanding the desires of his boss. In this case, his boss is the president of the United States, who has made clear it has been his dream to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Greenblatt has taken his responsibility seriously—and like any good lawyer, his first visit was dedicated to fact-finding…and that fact-finding took Greenblatt to meet student leaders in a Palestinian refugee camp, and to setting up a meeting of Muslim, Christians and Jewish religious leaders.

He met with Prime Minister Netanyahu for eight hours…and during those eight hours he was unable to reach an agreement—i.e., meaning Netanyahu was unwilling to meet his request regarding settlement building.

It is now clear to Netanyahu that Trump is very serious about trying to achieve peace—something Netanyahu cannot even contemplate with his current coalition. Thus, Netanyahu may seek elections in order to delay Trump's efforts and/or to create a coalition better suited to dealing with a Trump administration attempts to reach a peace deal—which could be a logical move on Netanyahu’s part.

However, Netanyahu's threat to bring down the coalition has been widely condemned. So, despite his many potential reasons for having elections, these internal storms could easily blow over.

What is unlikely to blow over quickly, is the situation on our borders. In a new development, the Syrians attempted to shoot down Israeli planes on Friday morning, planes that were doing exactly what they have been doing for the last five years (i.e., intercepting advanced weapons being supplied to Hezbollah in Lebanon).

Tensions were ratcheted up over the weekend, when Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned that if the Syria makes another such attempt, Israel will destroy the Syrian anti-aircraft system—something it did in 1981, despite the presence of Soviet advisers, being situated in Syria at that time.

Would Israel implement such a strike again today, given Israel's currently warm ties with Russia? The answer to that question truly depends on how directly Israel believes its interests are at risk. Clearly, Israel is unhappy with what looks like a Bashar al-Assad victory that strengthens Hezbollah and Iranian power in the area.

Israel’s final current, ongoing concern is the state of events in Gaza. No progress of any kind has been made to solve the economic crisis there. Even worse for Gaza, the world seems not to care.

Over the past few weeks there has been sporadic missile fire into Israel from Gaza—to which Israel has countered with limited responses. It is not at all clear that this balance can be maintained in the coming months.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.