Editorial: Shifting Sands

Jewish Light Editorial

The only constant in Israel politics is its inconstancy. 

Last week’s Israeli election results flew in the face of most pundits in the Jewish State and here. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to lead his Likud-Yisrael Beitenu rightist coalition to a substantial increase in the number of seats in the 120-member Knesset. Instead, Netanyahu emerged from the election with his bloc suffering a decrease of seats, from 42 down to only 31 in the new Knesset.

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The right was saved from minority status largely by a newcomer, Naftali Bennett, whose far-right National Home Party, a successor to the National Religious Party, quadrupled its seats from three to 12. After the final results were tallied and announced, it appears that the religious/right-wing bloc will hold 61 of the 120 Knesset seats, a razor-thin majority.

What was lost on the right end of the political spectrum was largely gained by the center and left. Most notable was the come-from-nowhere showing of 19 seats by the newly formed Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party, led by Yair Lapid, an immensely popular and charismatic Israeli TV talk-show host.  The Labor Party also commanded 15 seats in the new parliament.

Conventional wisdom suggested that the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc and the far-right parties would win a much larger majority. Why the surprising flip, then?

The results do seem to conform to surveys showing Israeli voters focused on domestic issues, such as the high price of housing and basic household products. Yet the expectation was despite the very real internal concerns, Bibi’s hawkishness would win the day, given the existential threats descending upon Israel from Iran, its proxy Hezbollah, the spillover from Syrian atrocities, and growing world antagonism toward Israel’s perceived approach toward the Palestinian statehood effort.

It may well be that Israelis believe that any of the major parties would embrace safety and security as a primary concern, so voting for those parties left of Likud shows less of a surrender of those priorities and more a recognition that the parties focusing on domestic issues would also demonstrate a strong backbone to the world.

This view was reflected to some extent by Joel Griffith on Breitbart.com Sunday, as he indicated that “On matters of settlement expansion in the West Bank, Yesh Atid aligns more with the center-right policy stances than with the left-wing parties. For instance, the leader of the party, Yair Lapid, favors Israeli control of East Jerusalem, and the party promotes maintenance of large settlement blocks within the West Bank.”

However, even if Atid and Lapid lean center-right on settlements as Griffith suggests, we doubt that was the primary impetus for their ballot box success, as any voter primarily concerned with those issues who voted for Likud-Beitenu in the past would not have had much reason to wander away. Therefore, there must be other factors — like  social issues, Lapid’s charisma, a more centrist stance, an alternative to Bibi’s style — that pulled the electorate in his party’s direction.

And just as the fun of forming a government begins, and parties in the minority get courted to join the ruling coalition, Lapid is already feeling his oats: He’s predicted he will be the prime minister next time elections roll around. Given his outrageous success in his first go-round, we’re inclined to take his boasts somewhat seriously.

Netanyahu will want to forge an alliance as broad as possible, but there’s no strong evidence suggesting he will succeed. Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich has said her rejuvenated party will remain in the minority. This may give Lapid even more stroke with Bibi, and reinforce the old adage about keeping your friends close but your (political) enemies closer.

Still, having a greater bloc would give Netanyahu much more breathing space on negotiations with the Palestinians and building relations with the U.S. as John Kerry is expected to be confirmed as Secretary of State and former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel seems headed for confirmation as Secretary of Defense, after allaying concerns of pro-Israel Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

Winston Churchill famously observed that democracy is the worst (as in messiest) form of government in the world except in comparison to any other form of government. In the midst of the turmoil in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Algeria in the volatile Middle East, Israel does remain the only true effective democracy in that part of the world. While it is still too early to predict the shape of the new coalition, it appears that there are opportunities for a better path forward to Benjamin Netanyahu than if the results had gone towards the far right instead of the moderate center.