Back from the brink

The middle-of-the-road vote on January 22 could push Netanyahu into setting new domestic and foreign policy agendas

Netanyahu Ratner 521 (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Netanyahu Ratner 521
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Just as it seemed about to strengthen radical anti-peace and anti-democratic forces, Israel pulled back from the brink. The January 22 election which brought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to power by a whisker was largely a vote for middleof- the-road sanity: for a more egalitarian society, fairer distribution of the national pie and giving negotiations with the Palestinians a chance.
For Netanyahu the election results came as something of a shock. Although his Likud Yisrael Beytenu alliance won by far the most seats, 31, this constituted a loss of 11 seats compared to their combined performance in the previous election. More significantly Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc won only 61 seats against the rival center-left’s 59. The upshot is that Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, the second largest party with 19 seats, holds the whip hand and will be able to push Netanyahu into setting new domestic and foreign policy agendas.
Israel owes this chance for a new beginning primarily to a vibrant, upwardly mobile young generation that balked at the direction Netanyahu was leading it. These are the young people who first put down a national marker in the mass protests of the summer of 2011. The message then was rejection of the harsh neo-liberal capitalism associated with Netanyahu and a call for restraint on market forces to keep prices, especially housing costs, down.
Stage two of the young generation’s protest came quietly in the January ballot booths with a mass vote for a better quality of life in a more caring society, and, by implication, against the outgoing Knesset’s antidemocratic machinations and the government’s foot-dragging on social issues and peacemaking.
In Yair Lapid, the handsome 49-year-old leader of Yesh Atid, they found the quintessential new Israeli, a personable champion they could identify with: moderate, pragmatic and successful, someone they could trust to look after their middle-class interests and help create what former prime minister Ehud Olmert called “a country that’s fun to live in.”
Lapid and his mirror image on the right, 40-year-old Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home, both spoke the jargon of the young. Bennett addressed young Israelis as “brother” or “sister”; Lapid spoke about a new more honest politics, promised that “we have come to change things” and asked “where is the money” the young should be sharing; both proved masters of Facebook and Twitter; even the name of Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), was coined with the young in mind.
Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich also had cohorts of young supporters. But in her case, they came from a narrower cadre of the more ideologically committed. She had nothing like Lapid’s or Bennett’s personal charisma and wide across-the-board appeal. As for the Likud and most of the other major parties, they were nowhere in sight. “We lost touch with the young,” Likud Vice Prime Minister Sylvan Shalom lamented the day after the votes were tallied.
Whether all this has the makings of a tectonic shift in Israeli voting patterns, it is still too early to say. But Likud leaders have been put on notice that if they don’t get through to the young, they will probably lose the next election. Lapid at any rate believes he has a very good chance of winning it and succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister.
Significantly, Lapid also won votes from disaffected Likudniks. The fact that he made it clear he would be ready to join a Netanyahu-led coalition helped. Many on the soft right voted for him on the assumption that he would help steer Netanyahu towards the more moderate center. Others who initially gravitated towards Bennett’s Jewish Home crossed over to Yesh Atid after a fierce Likud campaign discrediting Bennett as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and members of his list as rabid fanatics. Jewish Home served as a way station or conduit for voters streaming from Likud to Yesh Atid.
Netanyahu also paid dearly for his backtracking last summer on the key issue of military service for the ultra-Orthodox. The fact that he brought Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz into the coalition with a promise of action on the Haredi draft and then did nothing virtually destroyed Mofaz and reinforced perceptions of Netanyahu as a do-nothing leader.
In the election run-up, Likud activists in the field encountered deep antipathy towards Netanyahu. Some activists refused to work for him. Others spoke of a huge disconnect between the election team led by Education Minister Gidon Sa’ar and the field. After appearing in some sparsely filled halls, Netanyahu canceled his final campaign appearance in Netivot. In this election, Netanyahu and Likud were not bon ton.
Lapid and Bennett squeezed Likud from both the left and the right. Bennett won the settler vote hands down; he also did surprisingly well in the yuppie liberal belt around Tel Aviv, winning 13.65 percent of the vote in his home town of Ra’anana, and 7 percent and 6 percent respectively in neighboring Kfar Saba and Herzliya.
These were the areas where Lapid was dominant, beating out Likud for first place with around 25 percent of the vote in north Tel Aviv, Hod Hasharon, Herzliya, Raanana and Kfar Saba. What saved Likud nationwide was its strong showing in the south, where with Shas it picked up over 50 percent in places like Beersheba, Dimona and Ofakim.
Haifa in the north told the story of Labor’s relative failure. In the city once known as “red Haifa” because of its blanket support for Labor, Likud won 26 percent, Yesh Atid 18 percent and Labor only 15 percent. In Labor movement kibbutzim too, the party was strongly challenged by Yesh Atid, the leftwing Meretz and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party. Yair Lapid holds the whip hand after elections Labor had an excellent starting point going into the election with polls predicting over 20 seats. Yacimovich’s failure to build on this was largely a result of her adamant refusal to raise Labor’s traditional peace banner.
Other parties could do that; coming from Labor it rang false. Long time traditional Labor supporters defected to the peace-talking parties, Meretz and Hatnua. And the soft right Yacimovich hoped to attract went to Yesh Atid.
Worse: Failure to address the big issues prevented the new broom Labor leader from positioning herself as a prospective prime minister. Her range seemed limited to the socioeconomic, almost turning Labor into a niche party. Moreover, her economic message – heavy government spending and heavy taxation of big business and the rich – frightened away traditional upper middle-class supporters. Her abrasive “my way or no way” style coupled with the relatively disappointing election results will almost certainly lead to an early leadership challenge.
Yesh Atid, together with Hatnua and Kadima won 27 seats – almost the same number as Kadima (28) under Livni in the last election. Clearly voters still felt the need for a centrist force like Kadima, but after Livni’s and Mofaz’s failures at the helm, wanted new fresh leadership.
As he moves into his third administration, the key to where a weakened post-election Netanyahu leads Israel lies in the governing coalition he builds. His dream government is a broad-based coalition with Likud at the center, Bennett to the right, Lapid and Mofaz to the left, and including the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism for a total of 82 seats in the 120 member Knesset. The beauty of this coalition for Netanyahu is its balance: No single constituent party would be able to bring the government down on its own. But would this cumbersome coalition be able to get anything done? Would it be able to move on the Haredi draft with the Haredi parties in government or make progress on peace with the Palestinians with Bennett’s settler party there? More to the point: Will Lapid allow such a large, potentially dysfunctional government in which his liberal-center voice would be marginalized? Some of Netanyahu’s closest advisers are urging the prime minister to go further and form a government without Lapid. The rationale is that the young pretender is getting too big for his boots and needs to be taken down a peg or two. As a major player in government, he could grow in stature and mount a serious challenge for the premiership next time round, whereas if left out to dry in opposition he could fade away.
Instead of Lapid, these advisers say, Netanyahu should bring in Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua for a coalition of 69. But this scenario is unlikely because to get Livni in would take a stronger commitment to peacemaking with the Palestinians than Netanyahu is likely to give. And without Livni or Lapid, Netanyahu would be left with a far right-religious government on a collision course with the international community, a nightmare scenario he wants to avoid.
The truth is Netanyahu doesn’t really have a good governing option without Lapid.
Lapid therefore will try to exploit his position of strength to dictate both the composition of the coalition and its agenda. He will push for a coalition of 70, made up of Likud, Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi, Hatnua and Kadima, and without Haredim. It would be committed to four major goals: the Haredi draft, changing the electoral system, bringing down housing prices and taking the peace process forward. Bennett has assured Lapid that he has no objection to peace negotiations with the Palestinians and will only consider rocking the boat if they amount to something, which he doubts.
Deliberate leaks from Netanyahu’s inner circle suggest that this time the prime minister understands that he needs to do something on the Palestinian track, if only to stave off international criticism. He is reportedly considering an interim move in which Israel hands over more West Bank territory to Palestinian security control and helps boost the West Bank economy, but stops short of a final deal on the core issues of borders, Jerusalem and refugees. This is unlikely to satisfy the Palestinians or the international community.
The European Union, which is likely to adopt an ambitious Anglo-French end of conflict plan, and a second-term American president with an energetic new secretary of state will almost certainly press for more.
Clearly, for domestic and international reasons, Netanyahu wants to use the formation of a new government to get Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back to the peace table. The question is whether he wants a real peace deal or just process to keep the international community at bay. And what will Lapid do if it turns out that it is only process Netanyahu is after? If Netanyahu and Lapid find a way of working together, they could do great things. The problem is they will also be working against each other as rivals for national leadership.
Netanyahu will want to sideline Lapid, the way then-Likud leader Menachem Begin outmaneuvered Yigael Yadin, the great centrist star of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Come the next election, Netanyahu will want the electorate to see Lapid as a knight in tarnished armor. Lapid will want to appear more experienced, battle hardened and ready for the top job. In the meantime, Israel and the region can only hope they find a way to take things forward, while jousting against each other.