The news of Benzion Netanyahu's death on Monday effectively put on hold the march toward early elections, which was supposed to produce a certain date by next week. On Tuesday, Likud sources told Army Radio that elections would most likely be held on Sept. 4.
On Monday the Knesset officially convened its summer session, but analysts expect this to be short-lived as nearly all major political players have said they would welcome early elections and have already shifted to campaign mode.
After news surfaced Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's father had passed away, the opposition withdrew several no-confidence motions -- one of the key mechanisms for calling early elections -- and said it would reintroduce those measures only after the shiva, the week-long customary mourning period. Knesset bills to dissolve the parliament have also been shelved for the time being.
On Sunday, the prime minister held a series of meetings with his coalition partners aimed at setting an exact date for early elections, in an effort to upstage the opposition should its proposals gain momentum. Ironically, opposition parties now seek to hold elections only after the Jewish High Holy Days in September, citing the need for preparations. Netanyahu prefers for the vote to be held as soon as possible, to deny his main rival, newly elected Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz, time to organize and consolidate his role as the head of the opposition.
Next week the government is expected to introduce its own bill calling for a fast-track vote on early elections in the plenum. The Prime Minister's Office has communicated that it would prefer an Aug. 14 election. However, if one of the coalition partners objects to this date, Netanyahu might agree to postpone elections by several weeks, until Sept. 4.
Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, whose decision to introduce the so-called "service for all" bill to draft ultra-Orthodox into the Israel Defense Forces generated buzz, advocates elections as early as June.
"The best date for elections as far as we are concerned is June 14, or if that is not possible, then the next available date. For the sake of the country, we must have elections as early as possible. During a general election campaign everything grinds to a halt and is put on hold," Lieberman said at his party's caucus meeting Monday.
"While we initially thought that for once it would be nice to have a government that serves out its official term, now that elections are a done deal, we would prefer to have them held as early as possible, perhaps even next week if possible," Lieberman said.
"Yisrael Beitenu tailored its conscription bill according to the High Court of Justice ruling [which struck down the Tal Law that effectively exempted the ultra-Orthodox from military or national service]," he said. "The provisions in the coalition agreements that govern this issue are clear; it is abundantly clear that we cannot get everything we want, there is always a balance to strike between what's desired and what's available and people want to preserve this balance. I think we acted in the correct manner. We have been true to our voters and to our coalition partners."
Lieberman predicted that after the votes were counted his party would be "the second largest party in the Knesset." When asked if his party would be willing to join a coalition with haredi parties, Lieberman said he "would not rule out any partnership; agreements must be negotiated not according to the makeup of the electorate but as a function of a joint platform."
Shas party chairman Eli Yishai said Monday that elections were all but certain. "The date for elections will be set through partial or across-the-board consensus. The election ship has sailed. Shas is always ready for elections and they must take place as soon as possible." Yishai predicted that the election campaign "will see intensive skirmishes, with a high dose of bile and hatred directed against Jewish heritage and Jewish values. There is going to be a competition over who can be more aggressive on this issue."
As for the possibility that former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri may run on an independent party ticket, Yishai said that the Shas Council of Torah Sages had “been informed to deal with such a contingency; this is the forum that makes all the decisions; Aryeh Deri belongs in Shas and he will do anything Rabbi Ovadia Yosef [the party's spiritual leader] tells him to do."
Mofaz echoed Lieberman and Yishai's comments Monday, saying, "It is a known fact that we are headed toward elections."
Kadima “will be ready for elections whenever they are held,” he said. “We are united and ready for the main task, replacing Netanyahu's government. We prefer mid-October, but we will be prepared by any date."
Defense Minister and Independence party chairman Ehud Barak said Monday: "We are heading toward a general election campaign. We will run with all we've got in an effort to bring as many voters as possible on board to join our cause."
Barak played down reports that the Likud party would secure spots for his faction on its Knesset candidate list. Independence, which splintered from the Labor party, is currently polling below the necessary Knesset representation threshold. "I am well aware of the rumors and the chaotic atmosphere generated by fringe Likud elements – that Independence has been guaranteed Likud slots or that it will run on the Likud ticket. Just as Netanyahu and I have already said, such reports are baseless."
Labor chairwoman MK Shelly Yachimovich said Monday that her party should be credited for the momentum toward elections. "We have a vested interest in having elections as soon as possible. It would be preferable to have a short election season."
Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni, from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, said that holding early elections would cost the state NIS 400 million (about $106 million) just for the direct cost of funding the Central Elections Committee. "Undoubtedly, reforms will be put on hold as we look for new sources of funding inside the budget," Gafni said.