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Monday marked the official start of a short election season in Israel, with the country’s Knesset legislative body enabling an early election in three months by voting to disband on the first day of its winter session. As has been the norm lately throughout the Jewish state, the Iranian nuclear threat took center stage at the Knesset.
The road to Jan. 22, 2013 elections began when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Oct. 9 that “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.”
Netanyahu, at the time, vouched for a “short three-month election process, rather than a prolonged election cycle that could weigh down the economy.” Now that early elections are officially underway, the prime minister said at the Knesset Monday that Israelis have less than 100 days to decide “who will be at the helm and deal with the gravest security threats we have faced since our independence and the worst economic crisis the world has known over the past eighty years.”
Regarding those security threats, the prime minister’s remarks at the Knesset spotlighted his most popular preoccupation of late: Iran.
“Whoever makes light of the threat of Iran’s nuclear program doesn’t deserve to govern Israel for even a single day,” he said.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, who also spoke at the Knesset on Monday, said the Iranian threat is the most important election issue for Israel. “The Iranian regime’s policy is not just a charade; it must be viewed as a real threat in the clearest possible way that befits it,” Peres said.
Most polls indicate an easy road to re-election for the Netanyahu and his Likud party. Surveys by Israel Hayom and Maariv both predicted Likud winning the election with 29 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, up from Likud’s current 27 seats. Haaretz said the next coalition government, led by Likud and comprising of mostly religious or nationalist parties, could command 68 seats, up from the current 66.
However, speculation remains that Ehud Olmert, recently cleared of the corruption charges that led him to resign as prime minister in 2008, will head a center-left party to challenge Netanyahu. A Jerusalem Post poll revealed that party headlined by Olmert, former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, current opposition leader Shaul Mofaz (of the Kadima party) and popular former news anchor Yair Lapid would beat Netanyahu’s Likud by a margin of four Knesset seats, 31-27.
But Member of Knesset Tzipi Hotovely of Likud, who has asked Israel’s Central Elections Committee to block Olmert from running, said such a center-left party would only exist in “science fiction,” the Post reported.
On Monday, Netanyahu said that his current run as prime minister has improved the situation of “negative economic growth and rising unemploymen” that existed in Israel when he took office.
From a security perspective, Netanyahu said he has “put the danger of Iran’s nuclear program at the center of the global agenda” and described that Israel now has new “capabilities to act against Iran and its satellites [allies in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon], capabilities we didn’t have in the past,” without specifying what those new capabilities are.
Netanyahu also said Israel has experienced a relatively peaceful era with him as prime minister.
“We did not wage pointless wars,” he said. “Not only that, we did not wage any war; in my seven years in office (including my first term), there were no wars.”
Kadima’s Mofaz, in his Knesset speech Monday, said “No media spin can obscure the Netanyahu government’s failed policies and flawed leadership over the past four years, under Netanyahu’s watch.”
“Israelis are holding elections while Israel is a weaker country, a more isolated country, with a more fragmented and polarized society where people are hungrier and more afraid; this is not the Israel that I know,” Mofaz said.
Zahava Gal-On, head of the leftwing Meretz party, directly addressed Netanyahu’s economic policy by turning to the prime minister and saying Israel must “vote you out of office if they want to avoid the budget cuts you plan to pass.”