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Middle East

Security will dominate Israeli election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called an early election following a disagreement with his allies over the budget. His campaign is likely to focus on security.

It's only a small step from a tight budget to a debt crisis, as several EU countries have shown over the last few years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was trying to avoid just that scenario for his country with a tough consolidation plan.

Netanyahu planned to save at least 13 billion shekels (2.6 billion euros/$3.36 billion) in coordination with the Israeli central bank. The savings would have affected three areas: defense, infrastructure and transport, and social welfare.

Following loud protests from the political partners in his five-party coalition, he decided to reduce the cuts in the defense and social budgets. But the cuts in the social budget were still too high for one of his allies, the conservative religious party Shas, and so Netanyahu has decided to call an early election.

Terrorism and the Iranian threat

Netanyahu drawing a red line on a graphic of a bomb during an address to the United Nations General Assembly Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Tensions with Iran will be an important topic for Netanyahu

Last year, Israelis - most of them secular - took part in mass demonstrations to protest against the economic situation. Many of them have serious problems with high rents. That's an issue on which secular Israelis agree with the ultra-orthodox, many of whom don't have jobs since they prefer to study for religious reasons.

Gabriel Weimann, who teaches politics at the University of Haifa, believes social welfare will indeed play a role in Netanyahu's campaign, but that other issues will take the spotlight.

"Netanyahu will concentrate on security issues, like the Iranian nuclear bomb and terrorism," he forecast, saying the prime minister knows he can win votes on those issues. "But it will scarcely be in his interest to confront the voters with economic and social issues, such as the social divisions in the country."

Weimann says those are topics for the left-wing parties. "The result of the election will largely depend on who can make his topics count, and how the voters receive them," he said.

Israeli protesters hold placards REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The Israeli government has had to face protests over social justice

New policies possible

But it's not clear which direction Netanyahu, who is clearly ahead in opinion polls, will go after the election. According to Alfred Wittstock, an Israel expert at the University of Mainz, it's quite possible that he will change his current policies. Bearing in mind the current economic and social problems of the country, he could move away from his right-wing course.

"That's partly because Ehud Olmert, the former leader of the Kadima party, has been cleared of all the charges against him," said Wittstock.

Olmert, who was prime minister between 2006 and 2009, was facing corruption charges but a court has now cleared him of most of them. Netanyahu would have to react if Kadima decided to put Olmert, a political moderate, into the running as future prime minister. "That would give [Netanyahu] the chance to move toward the middle," suggested Wittstock.

Netanyahu has a reputation as a highly pragmatic politician. "If he needs to in order to hold on to power, he will not hesitate to go up to his enemies of yesterday and form a new government with them," said Wittstock.

US election a big factor

Weimann can imagine a different outcome. He sees a close connection between the Israeli and the US elections.

"In the whole history of Israel, the connection has never been as strong as it is this year," he says. Partly that's because the two polls are so close together, "but aside from that, the question of who the next US president will be is of great significance for Netanyahu. If Romney wins, that would help Netanyahu's campaign. Romney is seen as a supporter of Israel."

Mitt Romney with Israeli Prime Minister Banjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem EPA/AMOS BEN GERSHOM

Netanyahu, right, believes Romney will support him on Iran

Were Obama to win, Netanyahu could expect a continuation of the current difficult relationship. "An Obama victory wouldn't stop Netanyahu, but it wouldn't help him," said Weimann.

Wittstock also sees a link between the two elections: if Obama wins, it will be doubly important for Netanyahu to be able to show that he has the Israeli voters behind him. "If he's elected after that, he will feel he has the backing for a continued confrontation with Obama." If Romney wins, Netanyahu would face far less resistance from Washington.

And that would have its major effect on policy toward the Iranian nuclear program. "We can assume that Romney will have the same policy towards Iran as Netanyahu," said Wittstock.

Israel at the center of attention

The election puts Israel back at the center of attention in the Middle East, after 18 months during which the citizens of the Arab world have been in the spotlight. They've shown how they can reform their countries fundamentally - now they'll be looking at Israel as well as at the US.

Political developments in the Arab world will partly depend on whom the American and Israeli voters put in charge of their countries.

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