x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Israel PM Netanyahu calls for early elections

The September ballot would be the first in decades not to focus on pledges and ideas of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partly because the peace process has been deadlocked since September 2010.

TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, announced yesterday that he would dissolve parliament and called for new elections in September.

He said at a Likud party convention that “it would be favourable to have a short election campaigning period of four months”.

The ballot would be the first in decades not to focus on pledges and ideas of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partly because the peace process has been deadlocked since September 2010, analysts said.

Instead, campaigns will address the debate over an Israeli attack on Iran, tensions between religious and secular as well as economic hardships that have dominated media headlines since last year's massive protests against the high cost of living, according to analysts.

Leaders of mainstream Israeli political parties want to avoid alienating the increasingly right wing Israeli electorate by calling for an end to Israel's West Bank occupation, said Neve Gordon, an Israeli political science professor.

"The big parties agree more or less that Israel should continue with the occupation, because they don't want to lose votes from settlers and their supporters within Israel," he said. "There is a political cost for coming out against the occupation and no political benefit for opposing it."

Palestinian officials accused the Israeli right of trying to shift attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said they still expect the long-simmering dispute to emerge as a major issue.

Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, said: "Right wing Israelis are always attempting to downplay the conflict but I think it has been, and always will be, a top issue for the Israeli public."

Some Israeli analysts said the Arab pro-democracy protests throughout the Middle East in the past two years, coupled with the escalating international concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions, shifted attention away from the Palestinian aspiration for a state. "You have regional issues looming in a way that they haven't for a long time," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political commentator.

According to Mr Alpher, the conflict is lower on the domestic and international agenda also partly because Mr Netanyahu has made little efforts to resolve it. "For the last three years, Netanyahu has presided over a government that has no interest in the two-state solution and keeps on expanding the settlements," he said.

The Israeli leader, analysts said, will probably make few moves towards reigniting peace talks should he - as all polls predict - retain the premiership for a third term. They said the prime minister, who has repeatedly pushed western allies to aggressively curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, will try to draw both centrist and right wing parties into his next Likud-led coalition, possibly to get more public legitimacy to launch an assault against Iran.

However, Mr Netanyahu's hardline stance on Iran may makes it harder for him to persuade some centrist opponents to become his partners. Shelly Yechimovich, leader of the centrist Labour party, told Israeli television's channel 2 on Saturday that the premier was exaggerating the danger Iran posed to Israel.

"It is a mistake to make the Iranian threat into Israel's central problem," she said. Ms Yechimovich added that a strike should be "the last option" and sided with the US by saying that Israel should delay an attack for as long as possible to let international sanctions against Iran take hold.

Analysts say Mr Netanyahu may try to entice Labour, Kadima or a new centrist party led by the popular television host Yair Lapid to join his government, capitalising on those movements' fears of becoming irrelevant should they remain in the opposition.

The elections had been due to take place in 2013 and will be earlier partly because of an upcoming budget debate as well as politically sensitive new legislation that would require drafting ultra-Orthodox men.

The upcoming elections will also mark a realignment of the Israeli centrist camp, made up of many middle-class voters who analysts say will base their voting decisions on an economic agenda rather than one offering solutions to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.

The Labour party, which had ruled Israel for decades but was reduced to 13 parliamentary seats in the 2009 election, is now slated to garner as many as 18 seats in the 120-seat parliament, largely due to its new leader, Ms Yechimovich, a socially-minded television journalist-turned politician. Another newcomer, Mr Lapid, will form a new party aimed at reducing ultra-Orthodox power in Israel and tackling economic inequalities.

With those new faces drawing much media attention in recent weeks, Kadima, founded by former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 and which ruled the government from 2006 to 2009, appears to be in decline as the biggest centrist movement.

Polls last week showed that Kadima, which has been in the opposition since the Likud took power in 2009, will lose about two thirds of its parliamentary seats, which drop to about 10 from the current 28.

Analysts say Kadima lost much of its lustre because its main attraction for voters had been its popular founder, Mr Sharon, who has been comatose since undergoing a stroke in 2006.