Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Government calls early elections: Israelis to go to polls April 9 - Yehuda Shlezinger, Gideon Allon, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff

by Yehuda Shlezinger, Gideon Allon, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff

Coalition heads cite "national and budgetary ‎responsibility" as reason for moving elections up from November to April 9

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday called ‎early elections for April 9, setting the stage for a ‎three-month campaign clouded by a series of ‎corruption investigations against the long-serving ‎Israeli leader.‎

The general elections were not due until November.‎

Announcing the elections, a confident Netanyahu ‎listed his government's accomplishments and said he hoped his current religious, ‎nationalistic coalition would be the core of ‎Israel's next government as well.‎

‎"We will ask the voters for a clear mandate to ‎continue leading the state of Israel our way," he ‎said.‎

Coalition insiders on Monday tried to downplay the ‎role the conscription bill – controversial ‎legislation that has threatened the government's ‎stability multiple times – played in the decision. ‎

"It's time. Between the legal issues [plaguing the ‎prime minister] and the difficulties in the ‎coalition, we could all see it coming," one source ‎said. "Netanyahu decided to call early elections and ‎that's it. The conscription bill has nothing to do ‎with it. We all felt he [Netanyahu] wants an ‎election."‎

Moments after the coalition faction heads' meeting ‎ended on Monday, an official statement was released ‎saying, "Exercising national and budgetary ‎responsibility, the heads of the coalition parties ‎have unanimously decided to dissolve the Knesset and ‎call for early elections at the beginning of April. ‎The partnership in the Knesset and the government ‎will continue during election time." ‎

The government will officially introduce a bill ‎calling for the dissolution of the Knesset on ‎Wednesday.‎

Netanyahu, who also served a term in the late 1990s, ‎has been prime minister for the past decade.‎

His supporters point to a humming, high-tech ‎economy, his handling of security issues, ‎particularly countering the threat of Iranian ‎influence in the region, and his gains on the ‎diplomatic stage, including a close alliance with ‎President Donald Trump that has paid important ‎dividends.‎

Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital ‎and his withdrawal from the international nuclear ‎deal were both welcomed by Netanyahu. The Israeli ‎leader also has quietly forged ties with Sunni Arab ‎states, further sidelining the Palestinians, who ‎have severed ties with the U.S. because they believe ‎Trump is biased against them.‎

The White House still has not released a long-awaited peace plan, and Monday's announcement could ‎further delay its release.‎

But critics say these gains have come at a deep ‎price to Israel's democratic ideals.

Netanyahu's ‎hardline government has promoted a series of laws ‎that critics say are aimed at muzzling liberal ‎critics and sidelining the minority Arab population. ‎They point to wide socio-economic gaps and the high cost ‎of living and say that by neglecting the ‎Palestinian issue and continuing to build ‎settlements in Judea and Samaria the country is on the ‎path to becoming an apartheid-like binational state.‎

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak called the election ‎‎"the most fateful" since the assassination of then-‎Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.‎ ‎"If we all act properly, on April 10 we will part ‎with Netanyahu," he told Israeli media on Monday. ‎‎"Israel will get on a different path instead of this ‎nationalist, racist, dark vision."‎

Barak called for the country's dovish and centrist ‎parties to band together in a unified bloc in a bid ‎to topple Likud.‎

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, ‎said the election was a battle for the "soul of the ‎country."‎

For now, there does not appear to be anyone with the ‎popularity or gravitas to topple Netanyahu.‎

One wild card is former IDF Chief of Staff Benny ‎Gantz, who is flirting with the idea of entering ‎politics. Opposition parties have been aggressively ‎courting Gantz but for now, he has not committed to ‎joining any party.‎

The first public opinion poll after the announcement ‎of early elections predicted another solid victory ‎for Netanyahu and Likud.‎

The Panels Politics poll published Tuesday said Likud was likely to win 30 seats ‎in the 120-seat parliament, followed by Gantz's ‎hypothetical party with 13 seats.‎

Yesh Atid was projected to win 12 seats, followed by ‎Habayit Hayehudi and the Joint Arab List with 11 ‎seats each, Zionist Union (9), United Torah Judaism ‎‎(7), Meretz (6), Yisrael Beytenu (5) and Shas (4).‎

Former Yisrael Beytenu MK Orly Levy-Abekasis' party, ‎which has yet to be named, is expected to win five ‎seats. ‎

The survey polled 500 Israelis and had a margin of ‎error of 4.3 percentage points.‎

Still, the biggest threat appears to be posed by ‎Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who must soon ‎decide on whether to indict the prime minister.‎

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and said he is ‎the victim of a media-fueled witch hunt. At Monday's ‎Likud meeting, Netanyahu brushed off a reporter's ‎question and said he expected the investigations to ‎lead nowhere.‎

Mendelblit ‎has not said when he expects to make a ‎decision. The Justice Ministry announced Monday that ‎deliberations were continuing and were "not ‎dependent on political events."‎

Israeli law is unclear about whether a sitting prime ‎minister must resign if charged with a crime, and ‎Netanyahu has hinted that he will remain in office ‎to fight any indictment.‎

But criminal charges and the distraction of a ‎protracted legal battle could fuel calls for him to ‎step aside.‎

Kulanu leader Finance Minister Moshe Kahlan, a key ‎ally, said Monday that a prime minister "cannot ‎serve" if he is indicted following a required ‎hearing.‎

Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Israel's ‎Hebrew University, said the campaign would be ‎dominated by "a discussion of whether Netanyahu ‎should stay after, if he is prosecuted."‎

He said Netanyahu had settled on the April election, ‎roughly seven months ahead of schedule, in part to ‎‎"pre-empt" an indictment. The thinking is that it ‎would be politically difficult for Mendelblit to ‎indict, and potentially topple, a popular, newly re-elected prime minister.‎

‎"He wants to turn around to the attorney general and ‎say 'before you decide to prosecute me pay ‎attention. The people of Israel have re-elected me ‎for a fourth time,'" Hazan explained.‎

An electoral victory would send a message that "you ‎cannot overturn the results of a democratic ‎election," he said.‎

Yehuda Shlezinger, Gideon Allon, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff


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