Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that he plans to serve out his full term – through the end of 2013 – but recent political developments are said to be making him reconsider, sources in the Likud said. And those sources said that in recent days, Netanyahu has become much more attentive to advisers who are telling him that the time for elections is now.
While a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and the likely security and political fallout is getting nearly all of the media attention in Israel and abroad, Netanyahu actually has more immediate problems – and, for him, they are more crucial politically than Iran's nuclear program.
One is the ongoing debate over replacing the Tal Law that regulated exemptions for hareidi-religious yeshiva students. The original law has expired, and as a result, thousands of yeshiva students are now official AWOL. The IDF has not yet taken legal steps to force these students to serve, but that possibility exists, and hareidi-religious parties in Netanyahu's coalition – including Shas, a major partner – are unlikely to wait much longer for Netanyahu to propose an alternative. Doing so, however, would alienate Yisrael Beytenu, another major coalition partner. Netanyahu has managed to keep a lid on the situation for now, but it is unlikely he will be able to continue keeping the peace between both sides for much longer, political observers said.
Even more important, however, is the need for the government to pass a new budget. The technical deadline for this to occur is December 31, with an extension to March 1, 2013, if necessary. With recent weakness in the Israeli economy (which, experts say, is still performing well but is being affected by weakness in the U.S. and Europe), rising prices and taxes, and the growing protest movement over high prices, the economy may figure as a much more important issue in the elections than most people realize.
MKs from parties inside and outside the coalition are likely to try and present themselves as “friends of the people,” pushing benefits, tax cuts, and transfer payments that Netanyahu and, especially, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, would never accept. The possibility of a coalition crisis and a scarring battle over the budget - in which Netanyahu will inevitably come off as the “bad guy” demanding cuts in benefits and increases in taxes – is much on the mind of Netanyahu's advisers, insiders said, and Netanyahu is said to be coming around to their point of view.
Declaring elections at this time, with Netanyahu automatically becoming head of a caretaker government, would have numerous advantages, especially regarding the budget, as the requirement to pass a new state budget by deadline would be suspended until after the election. Netanyahu is in a very strong position politically, advisers told the Prime Minister, and confronting his political opponents would be easier now than after the coalitions unrest that the Tal issue and the state budget fight will inevitably bring. If he has to fight, his advisers say, Netanyahu should do it from his current position of strength, instead of coming into the election battle-scarred.
If Netanyahu does acquiesce, elections are likely to be held in January, about ten months before they would have taken place had the government served its full term.