Elections are the main topic of conversation on the news these past few days – elections in Israel and elections in the US. Just a few hours ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that he was calling for early elections, to take place just after the first of the year. Talk of elections in Israel had been brewing for some weeks but now it is official. Israel will be going to the polls in three months.
But the US elections are attracting unusual attention in Israel as well. Last week, President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney faced off during the first of several televised debates. After the debates were over, Romney was declared the winner based on widespread viewer surveys. This morning, one of the first items on the Israeli news was the fact that recent polls in the US are showing Romney as front runner in the US presidential race.
While politics is always an exciting sport, it is serious business as well. The president of the US is probably the most powerful political leader in the west. His decisions carry extensive ramifications, not only in the US but around the world. US economic policy affects economies around the world, affects the value of a host of foreign currencies, affects the tourism income of many countries, and affects the power the US wields in its international relations. And poor US foreign policy can have disastrous results on the internal politics of many small countries.
While Israel is a tiny country, the fact of Israeli elections will feature on the front pages of many newspapers around the world. While many foreign correspondents do not really understand the dynamics of Israeli politics, they will write hundreds of words in an attempt to analyze it. Well, here is the bottom line: Although Netanyahu’s term is not scheduled to end for another year, in February 2013 he will have been in power for 4 full years. Polls show Netanyahu to be a shoe-in for another term and his Likud Party as gaining significantly in number of seats in the Knesset. So why call for early elections? Because of the economy!
With the worldwide recession showing no signs of improvement, with the US mired deeply in its own astronomical debt and Europe spiraling downward, it is anticipated that there will be serious threats to the stable Israeli economy. Although Israel is the only western country to have escaped this most recent recession, it is anticipated that in order to preserve economic stability, the government will have to include widespread cutbacks in the 2013 budget. And cutbacks is not a popular word in an election year. Therefore, in order to prevent electioneering from affecting the budget, Netanyahu has called for early elections so that, given a renewed and stronger mandate for another term, he will be able to pass a responsible budget for 2013.
Interestingly, then, both the US and the Israeli elections are focused on the economy. But whereas US and European economic issues have played a major role in the economic decisions taken by Israel, ultimately affecting the timing of Israeli elections, Israel’s focus on the US elections is decidedly foreign-policy based. Israelis are not particularly concerned by the US deficit but they are most definitely concerned about how Obama is treating the Iran issue and how he is responding to the so-called Arab spring.
I have written extensively over the past year about the severe criticism in Israel over Obama’s handling of the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. A recent international survey found Obama to be far less popular in Israel than in any other country outside the US. And it is no wonder. As Iran’s centrifuges continue to spin and the international atomic energy commission finds evidence of Iran nearing the point of no return, Obama has refused to set red lines which would send a clear message to Iran that their time was running out. For months, the issue of whether Israel would be forced to attack Iran on its own has been headline news in every major newspaper in Israel. And a major part of that issue is the fundamental question of whether and to what extent Israel can rely on the US.
And that brings us back to the debates between Romney and Obama. I cannot ever remember US election debates grabbing such intense attention in Israel as they have this time. Israelis are holding their breaths during this US election campaign and following it closely. There is a clear perception that the outcome of the US election will be critical to the relationship between the US government and Israel.
Will the launch of an Israeli election campaign affect that relationship? Are the two related at all?
It is no secret that Mitt Romney and Binyamin Netanyahu are personal friends. They were both bright and promising students in Boston many years ago and they got to know each other then. I am sure that neither one of them imagined that they would fill such important positions in their respective countries so many years later. It would indeed be the closing of a circle if both Romney and Netanyahu were to win elections in their respective countries within months of each other.
But regardless of who wins the US elections and assuming that Netanyahu will continue as Israel’s prime minister, both leaders will be faced with enormous decisions just after their election campaigns are decided. Will the two attack Iran, will only one or will neither? Will the US try to appease a middle east which is becoming more and more radical and Islamist than ever before or will it challenge the Arab world to come to terms with Israel even as it stands staunchly and proudly as Israel’s greatest ally?
Nearly four thousand years ago, G-d spoke to Abraham and promised him that his children would be a nation and they would receive the Land of Israel. At that time, G-d made a significant statement to Abraham: “I will bless those you bless you and those who curse you will be cursed (Genesis 12:3).” Many Christian Zionists have quoted this verse as motivation for their support for Israel. They understand that G-d has commanded the nations to bless Israel.
I hope and pray that as both countries face significant elections, that each political leader examine his own agenda and search for his own direction from G-d, a direction that must certainly encompass Israel. I hope that whoever wins the US elections takes this Scripture seriously and seeks the best way to support my own nation. And I hope that Netanyahu, as he seeks re-election in Israel, will read that Scripture as well and seek out the nations and leaders who seek to bless Israel and unite together with them to stand strong against evil. And that in doing so, he will build a stronger, more united Israel.