My Word: Sticky politics

The government’s guidelines, after all, are not meant to fit in a bumper sticker or a Tweet.

Netanyahu and Lapid post-election broadcast 370 (photo credit: Screen shot)
Netanyahu and Lapid post-election broadcast 370
(photo credit: Screen shot)
In 1996, a friend summed up her election dilemma as “To Bibi or not to Bibi.” Surprising though it might seem today, much of her hesitation stemmed from a lack of information about just who Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu was.
Although he overcame the election hurdle that year to become, at age 46, the first prime minister younger than the State of Israel itself, it took much longer to conquer the image carefully cultivated in the Labor Party campaign that portrayed Netanyahu as a “nobody” and ran the slogan “Bibi isn’t suitable.”
The most complimentary thing Meretz MK Ran Cohen could think to say about him at the time was: “Netanyahu has a pretty face” and “he knows how to handle the media.”
The 2009 elections could be summed up in the Kadima party’s slogan “Tzipi or Bibi.” Tzipi Livni, now heading an eponymously named party but still pushing for an immediate return to talks with the Palestinians, might have done better in this week’s election had she stuck with her message that if you didn’t vote for her, you’d get Netanyahu in the driver’s seat.
But the big surprise of this year’s election was another “pretty face”; somebody who not only knows how to handle the media, he is an essential member of it. Yair Lapid left two of the most influential positions in Israel’s media scene – Friday columnist in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot and prime-time Friday night TV show host on Channel 2 – to establish his Yesh Atid (There’s a Future) party.
Apart from the jibes of their many rivals, Netanyahu and Lapid do not have much in common. They will, however, have to find a way to get on together if the prime minister wants to create anything approaching a stable coalition. With just 31 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats occupied by his joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list, it was obvious that Netanyahu would be among the first people to call and congratulate Lapid after exit polls showed him winning at least 17 mandates. Lapid, for his part, desperately needs a ministerial position to put on his CV.
Lapid is not just a pretty face. Apart from his accomplishments as a journalist, his resumé includes writing best-selling books, a drama series, a play and lasting lyrics to songs by popular singer Rita, among others. It does not, however, include political experience.
Neither are his military credentials particularly impressive. Lapid spent his army service as a reporter for the IDF’s Bamahaneh magazine. It was an obvious choice for someone whose maternal grandfather was a founder of the newspaper Ma’ariv, whose mother is best-selling writer Shulamit Lapid, and whose father, Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, was a well-known journalist and TV personality (and later political party head). Nonetheless, it did not provide the defense background for someone looking for the top spot in a country where the ongoing challenges include hostile neighbors, intermittent missile attacks, a growing nuclear threat from Iran, global jihad and local terrorism.
His wife, whom he refers to as “my partner, long may she live,” is photojournalist and columnist Lihi Lapid. He calls former prime minister Ehud Olmert, one of his late father’s closest friends, “almost a member of the family.”
It’s possible that Olmert, seasoned politician that he is, will offer the younger Lapid advice and guidance, but ultimately the Yesh Atid leader has to make a go of it on his own.
AT THE Jerusalem Post’s editorial meeting at the beginning of the week, I mentioned the lack of open signs of campaigning in my neighborhood, an area traditionally plastered with banners calling for support of the Likud.
The day before the elections, Yediot Aharonot dedicated an article to the demise of the political sticker – once literally a sign of the approaching polls. There was a time when some vehicles seemed to be held together by the layers of stickers proclaiming “Peres will divide Jerusalem” or “A whole generation demands peace”; “Hebron, now and forever” and “A strong people makes peace.”
Given the relatively high voter turnout, the missing slogans obviously did not signify the apathy many feared. Perhaps the arena moved from cars and balconies to Facebook and other social media.
Despite the complaints of economic woes, there are many more cars on the roads, and they are newer and in better condition. Possibly the owners – some of them leasing their vehicles long-term, many with company cars – did not want to get into a sticky mess with electioneering.
Maybe voters were less passionate. On my way to my polling station I met friends and neighbors who knew whom they were voting against rather than whom they were voting for. These elections were marked above all by a lack of party ideology and loyalty. You could stick the face of a politician in the back window of your car one day and find he (or she) had moved to a different party faster than you managed to get out of the traffic jam at the entrance to the city.
Quicker than you could say “Amir Peretz.”
Slogans and memes in the social media are expected to change quickly, like the messages the parties themselves were giving out. Bumper stickers are meant to, well, stick around.
One of the biggest questions now is whether some of the parties themselves will survive to another round of elections. As I write these lines, for example, it’s not yet known whether Kadima – a party that had 28 seats in the last Knesset – even managed to pass the electoral threshold.
Lapid has much to celebrate. He was not an unknown face, but politically he jumped into the unknown. He is well aware of the dangers of short-lived, centrist parties. He watched one rise and fall in his father’s living room. And for all that his style is very different from the confrontational in-your-face approach of the late leader of the late Shinui party, something of Tommy Lapid’s drive lives on in his son.
Lapid is being hailed as the unexpected big winner of these elections partly because another newcomer, Naftali Bennett – a young, successful hi-tech entrepreneur – had already been crowned the vote puller.
Even the morning after Israel went to the polls, much of the foreign press was covering the story of the country’s swing to the Right – the one that didn’t happen. Bennett, as the new head of Bayit Yehudi, a reincarnation of the National Religious Party-National Union, was meant to be the big hit according to the surveys and pundits.
The fact that Bennett’s party didn’t sweep the polls while Lapid’s did better than expected leaves Netanyahu in an overall weaker position.
Not a good place for any leader, let alone one whose campaign was built on the word “strong.”
Even in my stickerless, almost politically sterile neighborhood, veterans were wondering on January 22 not so much who would win enough mandates to be asked to form the next government, but how long that government would last.
As Yediot’s Yoaz Hendel put it in the next day’s paper: “There is no new politics, there are new politicians.”
Both Lapid and Bennett have been given an opportunity to take part in shaping the country’s future, learning the political ropes and climbing them at the same time.
If anything can unite them with Netanyahu, it is their mutual needs. But beyond that, all three like to think out of the box. Hopefully, together they can come up with something more meaningful than just a campaign slogan. The government’s guidelines, after all, are not meant to fit in a bumper sticker or a Tweet.
The writer is the editor of the International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]