If Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yacimovich join Netanyahu’s coalition
without Bayit Yehudi and the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu will have no
option but to follow the path of Begin, Rabin and Sharon and reach a painful
agreement – Eitan Haber, Yediot Aharonot, January 23, 2013
It is still too early to fully assess the ramifications of this week’s election
results, or to accurately identify what caused them.
However, on the
basis of the available evidence, Tuesday’s poll is unlikely to portend anything
positive – unless of course you subscribe to some theory of socioeconomic
alchemy, which holds that the whole of Israel can be miraculously transformed
into a Beverly Hills-like clone but one in which everybody will live happily
ever after in an atmosphere of egalitarian social justice.
butter vs life & death
Clearly, the major story of the elections is the
extraordinary and unexpected success of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a
Future) party which managed to win 19 (just over 15 percent) of the total 120
seats in Israel’s parliament, thus for all intents and purposes becoming a
crucial power broker in the formation of any coalition.
In his campaign,
Lapid focused almost exclusively on alleviating the alleged plight of Israel’s
middle class, studiously eschewing any reference to security and foreign policy
issues, other than an occasional oblique allusion to Israel’s growing isolation
in the international community and the need to address it.
Yacimovich’s Labor Party, which won 15 seats, also assiduously avoided broaching
matters of external policy, and confined its campaign attention to assailing
Binyamin Netanyahu’s domestic record – albeit with far more “social-democratic”
welfare-oriented emphasis than Lapid.
We are compelled to the conclusion
that in casting its ballots, a decisive portion of the Israeli electorate has
given priority to issues of “bread and butter” over those of “life and
Retreat into denial?
It was as if the Israeli voter opted for
denial, ignoring the massive challenges facing the nation, such as:
with the repercussions of the “Arab Spring” and the ascent of radicalism in the
- addressing the deteriorating situation in Sinai and a possible breach of
the peace treaty with Egypt by its Islamist regime;
- coping with menacing
developments in Syria and the specter of a radicalized al-Qaida-affiliated
- confronting the increasingly evident intransigence of the
Palestinians and the fading prospects of a two-state- settlement;
- and preparing
for possible regime change in Jordan, and the ascent of Muslim extremists to
And, oh yes, we almost forgot, there is the small matter of the
Iranian nuclear program.
These are all issues which neither Lapid nor
Yacimovich have any competence to deal with – or lay claim to any such
competence. Indeed, neither gave them any centrality during their
campaigns. Yet they enticed almost a third of the electorate to vote for
Disturbing drop in national adrenaline?
The fact that such a
significant portion of mainstream Israeli voters supported lists that not only
deliberately downplayed – but made little pretense of intending to address –
matters that impact the very survival of the state, seems to point to a dramatic
and disturbing drop in the levels of “national adrenaline.”
For given the
immediacy and the intensity of the threats facing Israel, it seems almost
inconceivable that the issue of who was best suited to deal with them played
such a negligible role in the election.
Indeed, it is difficult to avoid
the conclusion that Israel’s electorate has become dangerously detached from the
real challenges the nation needs to address.
Don’t get me wrong. As
someone who is light years away from tycoon status, I am keenly aware of the
socioeconomic pressures the average Israeli citizen has to contend with. Indeed,
I have my own (long) list of gripes regarding the dysfuntionalities of the
Clearly, there is much to address on the domestic,
socioeconomic front. Eminently plausible claims can be made for the need to
restructure the tax system, make markets more competitive, streamline
bureaucracy, raise salaries for specific professions and so on. But Netanyahu’s
government was in many respects responsibly addressing these
Arguably more than any of its predecessors, it has been willing
to challenge the monopolists/cartels and confront the “tycoons.” It oversaw the
dramatic reduction in the cost of mobile-phones service and even went so far as
to adopt the ethically suspect measure of retroactively raising royalties on the
profits from the newly discovered marine gas fields – incurring (somewhat
understandably) the wrath of the plutocrats.
Protesting popular plenty?
Poll after poll, both foreign and local, shows extremely high levels of
satisfaction with life in Israel, well above that in most industrial countries.
Important socioeconomic indicators are better in Israel than the average in the
OECD countries. According to the OECD Better Life Index site: “Israel performs
favorably in several measures of well-being, and ranks close to the average or
higher in several topics in the Better Life Index... Money, while it cannot buy
happiness, is an important means to achieving higher living standards. In
Israel, the average person financial wealth is 47,750 USD per year, more than
the OECD average of 36,238 USD.”
Moreover, life expectancy – usually
taken as an indicator of the level of a country’s healthcare – is almost 82
years in Israel, two years above the OECD average.
Israel also scores
higher on the prevalence of high-school education with 80% of adults aged 25- 64
having the equivalent of a high-school degree, above the OECD average of
A cursory stroll through urban Israel will reveal that restaurants
are full, cafes crowded, pubs jam-packed; the recreation industry appears
booming, with beaches teeming in summer, the ski slope crammed in winter, rural
byways swarming with off-road cyclists over the weekends, decked out with the
latest equipment and accessories.... Nor are overseas trips the exclusive
privilege of a wafer-thin layer of the “crème-de-la- crème.” Out of a total
population of 7.8 million, millions of Israelis travel abroad regularly,
spending billions of dollars on overseas trips.
Against this backdrop of
“popular plenty,” the eruption of “middle class” discontent, as reflected in
support for Lapid’s principal electoral theme, seems oddly
After all, surely not all these diners, latte drinkers,
late-night revelers, surfers, skiers, bikers, vacationers can be parasitic
ultra-Orthodox, privileged settlers or plutocratic tycoons?
Success as reason
Paradoxically, it was precisely the Netanyahu government’s success
that sowed the seeds of failure at the polls.
On the security front –
excluding the week-long Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza – Israel is enjoying
the longest period of calm for decades. This has relegated security concerns to
the back of the public’s mind and allowed more mundane issues to dominate its
agenda – unlike the situation under Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and
Ariel Sharon when Palestinian terror wrought carnage on the streets of the
nation’s cities and towns.
Nor have the Netanyahu government’s
achievements been confined to security. Indeed, it has stewarded the economy
remarkably well through the dire global crisis that affected much of the
industrial world far more seriously.
Thus, hitherto largely untouched by
the world economic crisis and accustomed to increasing consumption levels,
Israelis are refusing to tailor their expectations to their means. But as talent
(and luck) are not evenly distributed, it is unreasonable to expect an
egalitarian reality in which the fortunes of all are similar. Greater prosperity
has – inevitably – yielded greater inequality. Accordingly, keeping up with the
Joneses is becoming increasingly onerous, with social pressures pushing many to
live beyond their means.
It is this growing resentment, coming not so
much from the “have nots” but from the “want mores,” that generated much of the
anti- Netanyahu sentiment. A cursory glance at the election results seems to
indicate that Lapid fared better than the Likud mainly in well-to-do areas, but
not in those that allegedly suffered from Netanyahu’s economic policies, where
the Likud outperformed Lapid.
To a large degree, FrontPage Magazine
blogger David Hornik got it right when he wrote: “The Israeli public has not
done justice to Binyamin Netanyahu, whose overall record these past four years
on the security, diplomatic and economic fronts is solid and commendable; while
falling for the somewhat facile appeal of the untested Yair
But Netanyahu is not blameless. This is
the second atrocious campaign he has run, displaying a remarkable knack for
almost snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
In 2009, the glaring
lack of clarity and focus, of direction and resolve, in the Likud’s message left
– almost inconceivably – Kadima, a party riddled with unprecedented charges of
corruption and a disastrously failed record of performance, with the most seats
in the Knesset.
It was only the good graces of fortune – and the gross
incompetence of his rivals – that prevented Tzipi Livni being given the task of
forming the government.
Precisely the same error was evident in this
campaign, in which until very recently, Netanyahu’s – and the national camp’s –
undisputed victory was a forgone conclusion.
Indeed, the fact that the
Likud – almost incredibly – decided to campaign without presenting the public
with a platform, could not but have left many wondering what they were being
asked to vote for! His strategic errors began this summer, when instead of
holding elections – as he had already announced – he incomprehensibly entered
into an ill-considered and inevitably short-lived alliance with Shaul Mofaz. Had
Netanyahu held the vote then, before Lapid had fully organized himself, with
Livni still undecided whether to run, and probably unable to, with Obama still
gearing for elections in the US, with distinctly favorable public approval
ratings, he almost certainly would have fared far better.
His merger with
Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu was – as I pointed out in a previous column – a
disaster foretold, creating a united list that, inevitably, could be expected to
yield fewer seats than if they had run separately.
Anyone with an
aversion for Netanyahu could no longer vote for Liberman without voting for
Netanyahu – and vice versa.
Thus voters afflicted by an anti- Bibi or
anti-Yvette phobia were left with the choice of either abstaining or voting for
parties such as Lapid’s or Bennett’s. It is far from implausible to assume that
the Likud’s ill-advised attacks on Bennett, a natural ally, convinced at least
some of these voters to side with Lapid. Indeed, the fact that according to a
poll just published, 34% of Yesh Atid voters decided to vote for the party in
the last three days of campaigning, lends credence to this
Cause for concern
Admittedly, Lapid has conducted himself
commendably since the election results were announced. He has come out with some
surprisingly – including to myself – assertive Zionistic
However, I would urge caution. I have attacked Lapid on
numerous occasions, underscoring how he exploited his widely read Friday Yediot
Aharonot column to propagate positions he himself later conceded to be merely
Thus, on the eve of the disengagment (June 24,
2005), he published a caustic castigation of the opponents of unilateral
He warned darkly of the dire consequences and the
unbridgeable rift that would result if they succeeded in persuading the public
that the expulsion of Jews from Gaza should be aborted.
declared that Israelis were tired of sacrificing their lives for the sake of the
religious settlers, and that for the majority in the country, disengagement
“appeared the last chance for us to live a normal life.”
a year later (October 13, 2006), when the catastrophic failure of the
disengagement was undeniably apparent for all to see, Lapid published a
breathtakingly brazen follow-up, titled “Things we couldn’t say during
disengagement.” In it he admitted it had all been a giant ploy: “It was never
about the Palestinians, demography, and endeavor for peace, the burden on the
No, confessed Lapid, the real reason for imposing the deportation
of Jewish citizens and destruction of Jewish towns and villages was...
put the settlers in their place, to teach them “the limits of their power” and
show them who really calls the shots in the country.
I don’t not know if
Eitan Haber (see introductory except) is a Lapid supporter. But the sentiments
that he expresses are certainly characteristic of the prevailing sentiment in
much of Lapid’s core constituency.
It would be more than naïve to expect
that the current political super-star will not face growing pressure from his
base, to whom he owes political allegiance, “to follow in the path” of those who
brought the extremist warlords to the fringes of Eilat, the reign of terror to
the streets, cafes and buses of Israel, and the rain of rockets to the towns and
rural communities of the South (and beyond).
So be afraid, very afraid –
perhaps the best we can hope for is early elections.
(www.martinsherman.net) is the founder and executive director of the