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Yair Lapid poster-Banu Leshanot ,"we came to Change things" "There is a Future"
photo by Rhonda Spivak

A Prime Minister not as strong as his election signs suggested
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Ori Zehngut, center says his school would have given Lapid 50% of the seats in their mock election.
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Bayit Hayehudi activist with Poster of Naftali Bennett on his back.
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Rhonda Spivak, January 23, 2013, updated January 24

Netanya, Israel-As the final vote comes in here, it is clear that as Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Prime Minister, he will be running a very different government than he has been, and one where he will be far more constrained to pursue right of centre policies. In fact, he will be far more captive to his coalition partners--from wherever they are drawn--right, centre, left of centre. I will not guess at who will be in the coalition--it is very complicated and not yet clear, although it appears as if he will try to form a government with Yair Lapid's centre party, Yesh Atid, (There is a Future) that has 19 Knesset seats. It's not yet clear to me who else will be  part of that coalition between Likud Beitenu and Yesh Atid, but  Natfali Bennett's Jewish home is a possibility.

Netanyahu, it appears, can't just rely on the religious parties and more right wing parties to form  a narrow government as he did last time.  He must co-opt  Yair  Lapid's Yesh Atid party. He could technically go for a narrow right ultra-orthodox coalition and try to  co-opt Shaul Mofaz's Kadima party that has two seats (giving the coalition 62 seats), but that is unlikely and  well be a short lived coalition.(The only reason I can think of Mofaz being willing to join is that he ultimately may be willing to re-join his former Likud party, rather than have no one notice him at all). 

In reality, Netanyahu has gotten through this election by the hair of his chinny chin chin. Going into the election Likud and Israel Beinenu had 42 seats, and now Likud-Beitenu emerges with only 31 seats, a significant drop.  He will be the Prime Minister ( likely), but behind his back, and not even behind his back, Israelis will be saying he is a Prime Minister with no clothes.  And who knows what the shelf life of any government he forms will be ? Technically Lapid's Yesh Atid party has just as many seats as Likud has--19. (Likud has 19 and Israel Beitenu has 12 to comprise Likud Beitenu's 31). What's clear is that Yair Lapid's party has a lot of leverage in making it difficult for Netanyahu to form a functioning coalition without him.

Lapid has just been on television here to say essentially that he does not see himself forming a government and will not try to form a "block that stops" Netanyahu from forming a government, by joining with the left-wing and Arab parties against Netanyahu. The common thread of a new government in which Lapid is a central partner will be finding a way to "share the burden" equally by making the ultra-orthodox do military service and enter into the working world, rather than receiving  extensive government handouts. If that is the agenda, it is difficult for me to see how the ultra-orthodox Shas party, which badly wants to be in the coalition, could  join.

In essence the results of the election show that the Likud was unable to capture the hearts of the voters of the centre who went on mass to Yair Lapid.

The Netanyahu Decline:

At 8:04, two hours before the polls closed here on election day , Jan 22, 2013, Benjamin Netanyahu wrote a rather desperate call on his Facebook wall:

“Likud rule is in danger,” he wrote, and repeated his call to his supporters to drop everything and go vote for the Likud-Beytenu list.  “It’s very important for guaranteeing the future of the state of Israel.”

I was not surprised when I heard about Netanyahu's facebook wall, after having come back from speaking with the young activists from the parties and people who had just voted at two polling stations in Netanya (a city where the right wing is more prominent usually).

There was one Sephardic Likud voter from Netanya, who overheard me talking to the young people, who came up and said, that something was going on--"I have a big family in the North, and they have always voted Likud, and this year none of them did."

I replied, "Yes, but that is just one family."

He replied, "But I am a bus driver and all day I heard people on my bus talking about how they were going to vote. There could be a turn over here--the Centre-left could possibly win."

Most of the students he spoke to didn't think it was possible, but the bus driver was very confident and said, "I'm telling you, there could be a Mahapach (a turn -over) here."

The results confirm what has long been the case in the State of Israel since its creation--the bus drivers (and cab drivers) are often the best sources of information. They have their finger on the pulse of the country.

The Rise of Lapid:

One of the Labour party young people at a Netanya polling station, Ori Zehngut, told me that at his school in Tel Mond, near Netanya, "We had a mock vote and Lapid won 50% of the seats. If it was left up to voters 18-20, Yair Lapid would be Prime Minister."

That's when it struck me just how many seats Lapid could get. With  voter turnout higher than since 1999, more young people came out to vote.

Who is Yair Lapid? A charismatic nice-looking well known journalist, news anchor, author, and talk show host, from a secular family, who had a famous journalist newsman father, who was a Holocaust survivor, Tommy Lapid. Yair Lapid campaigned on improving the education system, making housing more affordable for the middle class, universal draft--(ultra-orthodox to be drafted, equal sharing of the military burden),and fewer ministers in the government (a leaner bureaucracy).  He has never before held a Knesset seat, his party is only a year old, most people don't know the first 19 people on his Knesset list, and about a month ago he was projected to get 5-6 seats.  He has said he won't be a "fig leaf" for a right wing ultra-orthodox government. On the key diplomatic and security issues, I am not at all clear what he stands for, but he wants a return to the peace process and a more centrist government.

Is he in favour of freezing settlements?  I think so although I am not sure he has ever been directly asked. Is he willing to  have a settlement freeze include East Jerusalem? I think not likely but I don't know.

Will he be prepared to give the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem?  It appears not- (but under pressure from the European Union and Obama, who knows?)

Lapid has said that if Israel does not compromise on the unity of Jerusalem, or on the “right of return,” the Palestinian Authority will give up on both. [I don't think either of those things are at all clear] Lapid has said “There is no compromise on Jerusalem.  If the Palestinians understand that without giving in on Jerusalem they will not get a state, they will step down from this demand.."

He has also said "The Palestinians must be brought to an understanding that Jerusalem will always remain under Israeli sovereignty and that there is no point for them in opening negotiations about Jerusalem."

Lapid has also said "What I want is not a new Middle East, but to be rid of them and put a tall fence between us and them." The important thing, he added, is "to maintain a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel."

He spoke from the Jewish settlement of Ariel, over the green line and said Ariel will be a part of Israel (certainly not something Palestinians have been willing to agree to).

The problem here is that no one really knows what the other 18 Knesset members from Lapid's party think, since the list was handpicked by Lapid and there were no party primaries. Most importantly, Lapid's untried untested party never really had to clarify as a party what they stood for in regard to the major political issues of the day.  Also, it's not clear at all to me how decisions will be made among the 19 members. Will Lapid be able to dictate to his team their position in dictatorial fashion or will it be a far more consensual approach? An open question.

Although I think it is fairly safe to say that the chances of an Israeli unilateral strike on Iran has gone down after the results of this election, it not clear what the 19 Yesh Atid Knesset members think about a possible military confrontation on Iran. Lapid told the Jerusalem Post in October 2012 that Netanyahu made mistakes by instigating a conflict with the US administration, and threatening Iran with military action rather than focusing on intensifying sanctions.

“Netanyahu has created a situation in which it became an Israel-Iran problem and not a world-Iran problem,” Lapid said.

“There is only one way to end the Iranian nuclear threat: The fall of the ayatollahs. An Israeli strike would only delay the Iranian nuclear problem. It would enable the Iranians to say we have been attacked by a nuclear country and now we have no choice but to develop nuclear weapons. The way to make the ayatollahs fall is to strengthen the sanctions.”

Lapid also said Netanyahu was wrong to try to force the US to set deadlines for Iran.

“It is hubris to give an ultimatum to the US,” Lapid said.

“People tend to forget that the plane Netanyahu is sending to bomb Iran is an American plane. He thinks he can drag America to do what it doesn’t want to do. He is leading Israel to war too soon, before it’s necessary. Like Netanyahu, I think that if we came to the point of no return, Israel would have to bomb, but there is still a lot left to do to avoid that."

What is most siginificant about Lapid's campaign was that he addressed mostly domestic issues, such that it is difficult to know what his real positions on security-diplomatic issues will be--let alone those of all his 18 Knesset members.

The Rise of Naftali Bennett:

The other newcomer, U.S. born self made and independently wealthy Naftali Bennett, is a charismatic speaker (I heard him speak at the Shimon Peres Presidential Conference in Jerusalem in June), who is against a two state solution, and promotes annexation of at least part of Judea and Samaria . He clearly has captured the hearts of the nationalist right, but it is difficult to see him sitting in a government that freeze's settlements for example, which Lapid's party would agree to.  Although Netanyahu could form a government with just Lapid's party and Bennett's party together, it's difficult to see a long shelf life for it, in the face of international pressure to agree to a settlement freeze and return to negotiations. That is unless Bennett is willing to be more compromising once he a part of a coalition, than he has projected so far. Or unless Netanyahu starts with one coalition, and then changes partners mid-way.


According to a tally of 99.5% of the votes, the resulting division of Israel's 120-seat Knesset is:
Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu (Benjamin Netanyahu): 31
Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid): 19
Labor (Shelly Yacimovich): 15
Shas (Haredi Sephardi): 11
Habayit Hayehudi (Naftali Bennett): 11
United Torah Judaism (Haredi Ashkenazi): 7
Hatnua (Tzipi Livni): 6
Meretz (Zahava Gal-On): 6
United Arab List-Taal: 5
Hadash (Arab): 4
Balad (Arab): 3
Kadima (Shaul Mofaz): 2

Part II to follow

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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