Bibi’s decision to call for Israeli elections on January 22 was not unexpected. While the expressed reason for dissolving the Knesset was its likely failure to pass a budget within the required three month window, Bibi was proactive to control the timing of the elections. It seems, however, as David Makovsky of The Washington Institute analyzes in great detail that there were many more motivations—largely related to domestic politics–behind this timing. Given the medieval machinations of Israeli politics it is truly fascinating, but it is U.S.-Israel relations which deserve attention by Israel’s supporters in the U.S.
Virtually no one in Israel doubts that Bibi will be the Prime Minister in the next Israeli Government with a coalition that could be even more dominated by his Likud Party than is the current one. The decision to call elections now, however, speaks to two issues related to Israel’s relations with the U.S.; American elections and the Iranian nuclear readiness.
Bibi and Barak clearly have agreed that Iran’s potential threat is 6-9 months ahead, at the earliest. It also suggests that the storm that Netanyahu made over the Iran issue was indeed not only a clear rejection of U.S. defense and intelligence estimates but also a calculated decision to inject Iran into the presidential race. Bibi repeatedly embarrassed the Obama Administration with respect to its strategic thinking as well as its tactics; both of which it appears—at least at this point—to have been correct. The White House said that it was premature to consider an attack at this time based on its assessment of Iran’s nuclear development. Netanyahu pressed and pushed the Obama Administration at a time of very intense domestic political vulnerability, but now obviously has decided to push back. Bibi successfully embarrassed the President and placated and satisfied many of his own financial backers, many of whom are also Romney supporters. Tactically speaking, Obama also built a coalition for sanctions suggesting that economic and financial pressure might well shake up the Iranian regime. It now appears that they have begun to have an effect, although to what degree they are influencing any actions in Iran is not clear.
Second, Netanyahu has indeed soured his already tense relationship with the Obama Administration and not very subtlety demonstrated his preference for a Romney win in November. Now that the results—despite Romney’s performance in Debate I—still appear to lean towards an Obama re-election, Bibi needs to permit some time to pass as he finds a way to repair the damage done to his personal relationship and what undoubtedly, is personal resentment throughout the White House.
In calling his own elections now, Bibi can let the Obama team deal with its re-election (or Romney’s election) while Netanyahu focuses on his own campaign. Sometime after the transition—perhaps when AIPAC meets again in the spring– Bibi will come back to Washington after his own re-election and make a fresh start to establish a healthier relationship with the White House. This time perhaps he will come in a much less politicized mood and confrontational tone.