The Knesset’s New Faces

Published in The Daily Beast

It turns out the big story of this election was Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, and not Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi). By reaching 19 seats (if it holds), Yesh Atid will not only have exceeded expectations, but become the second largest party, surpassing Labor. Yesh Atid together with Likud-Beitenu reach 50 seats, meaning that adding any of the next three largest parties—Labor, Jewish Home, or Shas—would already put them over the top. This gives potentially game-changing power to Yair Lapid to try to determine the composition of the next coalition.

In his post-election speech, Lapid listed three challenges: the fiscal crisis threatening to crush Israel’s middle class; Israel’s isolation due to the frozen peace process; and the failure of Israeli society to share the “burden,” meaning ultra-Orthodox exemptions from military service and possibly taxes. Netanyahu adopted all three of these points from Yesh Atid’s platform as “core principles” in his own post-election speech, making his intentions to unite with Yesh Atid clear. In a speech that noticeably failed to excite his followers, Netanyahu praised Israel’s “bubbling democracy”—code for, tonight’s results torpedoed our plans. Netanyahu promised to establish a broad coalition, signaling that he intends to bring in more or different partners than the usual ultra-Orthodox and nationalist right-wing parties.

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Yesh Atid organized an impressive ground operation and drew heavily from centrists, but also from voters self-identifying as right-wing. For months, both Lapid and his number two, educational reformer Rabbi Shai Piron, have been mentioned as possible heads of the education ministry. Now Yesh Atid will demand and receive additional plum ministries.

Lapid, who also recalled the burden of responsibility that fell on his father after his electoral success more than a decade ago leading the Shinuy party, will now try to avoid replicating Shinuy’s fate—a meteoric rise, with minimal success implementing its agenda before disappearing (like the possibly vanishing Kadima). He also highlighted his party’s ethnic and religious diversity and the large representation of women in the top 20 (40 percent), a start contrast to Likud-Beitenu.

As for Likud-Beitenu, its numbers—31 to 32 seats—are either a repudiation of the horrible leadership of Netanyahu and the weakness of his boilerplate “Strong Leader, Strong Israel” campaign, or show that Netanyahu’s constituents assumed his return as Prime Minister was a done deal and spent their vote elsewhere. Lieberman has disappeared since his indictment, so it’s not clear what the vote says about him or Yisrael Beitenu. But if the two parties were separated, Likud would get only around 20 to 22 seats, just a bit more than Yesh Atid. The revelations before the elections about the massive fiscal deficit the government has incurred in the last four years and tried to hide (almost twice as bad as predicted) and the images of Netanyahu as a fatcat (indulging in cigars, whiskey and chef meals while determining defense policy) may have driven more of his supporters to look to Lapid and his calls for changing priorities and the way of doing politics, or to Naftali Bennett and his “Jewish” and “Zionist” values.

Unless Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich—should Lapid decide to support such a venture—succeeds in pulling together a blocking coalition as she promised to do in her post-election speech to Labor activists last night (and Labor’s projected numbers have dropped since she spoke), Netanyahu will still form the next government. Labor’s showing was a major disappointment. Although 15 seats is respectable, and Labor’s rhetoric and composition is genuinely changed, the results represent only a two-seat increase over the Barak-led Labor Party of four years ago. The center that Yachimovich wooed so mightily, and at the cost of alienating long-time leftists, went to Lapid.

As for smaller parties, Jewish Home and Shas are both coming in around 11 to 12 seats. Shas will stay exactly where it has been for a decade (11 or 12 every time), but they will spin this as a huge victory because they were anticipating a drop: their pre-recorded election day calls played spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef crying on the phone because of the expected decline. Jewish Home more than doubled its numbers but is falling short of the astronomical expectations created by certain polls and massive media attention. Meretz may double its representation, jumping from 3 to 6, showing that there is still a hard core of Israeli Jews who identify both as leftists and with its traditional agenda: a two-state solution, a strong democracy, social justice, equality and civil rights for all Israelis, Jews and Arabs, men and women, gays and straights. Many, no doubt, were put off by Labor’s Yachimovich treating the peace process as if it was the third rail.

Tzipi Livni’s return as the savior who would lead Israel out of international isolation and back to her prematurely interrupted negotiations with Abbas did not persuade. Despite completing an impressive mid-career ideological flip and adopting Labor’s abandoned peace platform (along with its number two, Amir Peretz), Livni could only carry 6 of the 28 seats she had earned as Kadima’s leader. When the moment to choose arrived, voters apparently remembered her failure as an opposition leader, and she wound up taking seats that might have gone to Labor, Meretz or to Yesh Atid. Still, the two parties, Meretz and Livni’s Hatnuah, which explicitly support reviving efforts to achieve a two-state solution through negotiations, total 12 seats. Add to them the four seats going to the Jewish-Arab communist party Hadash, and the leftists in Labor, and throw in Yesh Atid’s call for genuine negotiations, and it seems that the peace camp is not quite dead.

Whatever way you look at it, this election is a call for change and a reaffirmation of the social protest agenda. Every major party promised to champion the middle class, the poor, or both, and Lapid’s housing demands echo those that launched the protest 19 months ago. The country made it clear that it does not want right-wing extremism but is desperate for a different way of doing business. And in addition to new political leaders Lapid and Bennett, there will be more than 50 new Knesset members. (Imagine 40 first-time senators taking office in the same year.) If Israel slips back into politics as usual, it will not be for lack of new faces or opportunities.

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