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Will surprising results stop a status-quo Netanyahu-led government?

Despite the surprising weakness of the Right-ultra-Orthodox bloc, the final result of the elections, according to exit polls, is still likely to be a status-quo Netanyahu-led government. Why? Because the big winner in this election, media personality Yair Lapid, is a vapid centrist who is likely to join Netanyahu’s coalition and make little noise on policy — either on Israel-Palestine, or any other topic

Yair Lapid (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org)

The exit-poll results are in, and Noam has an excellent summary of the headline figures. A lot of the attention, as actual results pour in through the night, will be focused on the balance between the blocs. The common wisdom, based on the polls, was that the Right and the ultra-Orthodox will have something between 64-67 (of 120) seats in the Knesset – a solid majority that was supposed to strengthen Netanyahu’s hand in coalition negotiations.

According to the exit polls, that bloc is actually 61-62 seats, bringing it perilously close to losing its majority. This is a surprising result, especially in light of very low voter turnout among Israeli-Palestinian citizens, who rarely vote for the Right. Yet even if the Right and ultra-Orthodox fall to 60 or slightly below, the outcome might be disappointingly similar to what everyone assumed: a Netanyahu-led government, incorporating some centrist parties.

The basic problem is that the Jewish-Zionist parties of the “Left” or “Center” have never been willing to form a coalition with the non-Zionist Arab parties, or even form a minority coalition relying on their votes. Without the Arab parties, there is no chance that the Center-Left can form a government on its own. That automatically weakens its hand in coalition negotiations.

Furthermore, the Jewish-Zionist Center-Left is currently splintered into two major parties (Labor and Yesh Atid, with 17-19 seats each, according to exit polls) and two smaller parties (Meretz and Hatnua, with 6-7 each, according to the exits). Netanyahu can pick off parts of this bloc at his convenience.

The task is made easier by the most surprising result indicated by the exit polls: the rise of Yesh Atid to become second-largest party after Likud-Beitenu. Yesh Atid is a new party, headed by Yair Lapid, a media personality and the son of late journalist and politician Yosef Lapid, who led a similar party to similar results in elections that took place less than a decade ago. As its name suggests (it means “there is a future” in Hebrew), Lapid’s party is, literally, the personification of vapid centrism. The only glue that holds it together is the fact that its future parliamentarians were picked at the sole discretion of their founder and chairman.

Lapid himself, despite running for office (tacitly and explicitly) for almost two years now, has not distinguished himself as a clear voice on public policy. On the two most important issues facing the country – relations with the Palestinians and economic policy – Lapid has evaded taking any tough stances. Indeed, he is famously self-contradictory and vague. He is slightly more strident regarding relations between secular and religious Jews, but even here his solutions are usually mushy and ideally suited for politically convenient foot-dragging and can-kicking.

In other words, Lapid is the ideal partner in Netanyahu’s coalition. The prime minister was never too keen on basing his coalition solely on the Right and the ultra-Orthodox, even if that bloc had done better in the elections. Netanyahu has always preferred larger coalitions, where no single partner, or no single group of crazies from his own Likud, can hold the government hostage. And if there is such a partner, it is better for it to be big and clearly controlled by a person who is not inclined to make much noise or draw lines in the sand.

So Netanyahu and Lapid should get along fine. Likud-Beitenu, Habayit Hayehudi (a hard-right party much strengthened by the elections) and Yesh Atid will have a majority of seats in the Knesset, if the exit polls are correct. To increase stability (did I mention the crazies?), they include might the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, which would probably get along with Lapid just as it grudgingly accepted his father (who was much more strident on secular-religious issues than his son).

What about the Israeli-Palestinians issue? Lapid will probably be the only one in a position to pressure for change on this front. If he is so inclined, he managed to conceal it quite impressively thus far. His party is made up mostly of left-wingers (unlike the crashed-and-burned Kadima, which was half and half). However, if the Israeli-Palestinian issue matters to them, they sure had a funny way of showing it by joining Lapid’s party when almost every other option left of Likud was more promising.

It is likely that this hastily-cobbled team, with little shared background, history or values, will quickly dissolve. This is the story of all of Yesh Atid’s predecessors, occupying the spot of Jewish-Zionist secular new party (and there have been many of them, including the one headed by Lapid’s own father). However, it is unlikely to be over the Palestinian issue, and unlikely to affect public policy in any significant way.

Let’s hope for more surprises, then.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Danny

      I might have agreed with you about Yesh Atid joining Netanyahu’s status quo gov’t – IF Likud was at 35-40 seats and Lapid was at 8-12. But now the results are vastly different, and Lapid can very realistically say to Netanyahu – let’s have a rotation gov’t. What can Bibi say to that? No – I’ll govern a gov’t of 61? He can’t.
      .
      This scenario assumes that ALL of the centrist parties can be disciplined enough to not jump ship and enter Bibi’s gov’t without the others. Given that if any one of them does so (for example, Livni) they will be effectively run out of the knesset the next elections, the probability for a break in the status quo is not low (though not high either).
      .
      It will be interesting to see what transpires.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        I don’t understand your reasoning. Bibi can say no since he could form a coalition of 61 without Lapid (LB+JH+Haredim=61 if the exit poll average is accurate).

        Let’s wait until tomorrow to see what the actual results are since one seat here and one seat there actually matter for these discussions.

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          Sure, Bibi can put together a gov’t of 61, and try to govern with it. But how long do you such a gov’t will last? Not even a year.

          Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          I guess I spoke too soon. It appears Lapid’s idea of a successful election campaign is one in which he sits comfortably on a leather minister’s chair and gets driven around in a shiny new Volvo – compliments of Bibi/Lieberman. Very disappointing, and just on his first day on the job!
          .
          I guess the status quo is impossible to kill from the inside, and we will need some outside help (e.g. BDS) to convince Israelis.
          .
          All in all, a pretty successful election for Bibi!

          Reply to Comment
    2. The Trespasser

      Most apparent coalition is Likudeinu + Lapid (+-50 seats) + whatever minor right party/ies.

      Lapid couldn’t care less about Palestinian issue, so the Right Block would remain strong while supposedly taking care of middle class etc.

      No Shas, no commies, G-d forbid.

      Reply to Comment
      • Dany

        I’ll support every coalition which will piss off Dummbabbler like you.

        Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        Wrong as usual. Lapid said on numerous occasions that he wants negotiations with the Palestinians (if only to “divorce” them, as he puts it). He is center-left, and has several well-known doves on his ticket. He will definitely push towards normalization of relations with the Obama administration, which pretty much means that Bibi will have to eat quite a few frogs in his next term.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Danny,

          Coalition which would piss me off the most would include Meretz, Avoda, Hamas and Balad.

          I sure that you’d support them happily.

          >He will definitely push towards normalization of relations with the Obama administration

          Who’s Obama? That useless Afroamerican who’ve stolen the Noble Peace prize?

          Reply to Comment
          • History

            That’s exactly the type of attitude that Netanyahu adopted when he backed Romney.
            Nice.
            Keep this up and I wonder when America will finally see sense and realize that it is backing an extremist right government that represents a country with an extremist right majority, and that is completely ungrateful, termed the spoilt brat of the us by everyone else.
            Fascism truly has no manners..
            You’ve impressed me again with your hate speech, trespasser, I thought I’d heard it all

            Reply to Comment
    3. The second place showing of nascent Yesh Atid is (another) strong indicator that an increasing portion of the Israeli electorate has become dislodged from proffered elite policy, and I think this showing indicates that J14 did indeed impact a significant number of Israeli’s perceptions. Lapid’s decision to dodge the Palestinian issue while placing many “doves” on his list worked: as in J14, Palestine alienates via loyalty and security, dampening sentiment on economic change. But an electorate willing to shift so much may well be willing to consider the peace issue if tied to matters of finance. A Lapid stressing a settlement freeze with reduced subsidies might be a start. I am not saying this will happen; I have no idea. Yet a partial electorate veto of elite party games is evident through Lapid’s showing, and may well offer a new political space to either position small gains or articulate a true alternative.

      Bibi has repeatedly shown an arrogance towards the electorate, as early as J14. So far, he has bet on the electorate not independently reorganizing. Perhaps this election shows he is wrong in that.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      I don’t know if most of Lapid’s voters are “leftist” on the “peace process”. He obviously picked up a lot of votes from former Israeli Betein and KADIMA voters who are not hard-Left and, in fact, may be considered “security hawks” if not necessarily as big supporters of the settlementss as Bennet-Bayit Yehudi is. Lapid said he opposes division of Jerusalem, so if he really means it, then this automatically throws a monkey-wrench into the negotiations with Abbas (of course, there is the bigger problem of the irreconcialable “right of return” of the refugees clouding the whole so-called “peace process”).

      Reply to Comment
    5. Piotr Berman

      Lapid will feel a strong pressure to force some changes simply to maintain his brand. What that change will be? There are only so many directions where he can go.

      Since Netanyahu cannot form a government without Yesh Atid, Lapid has strong position. Better relationship with USA and benefits for the middle class are obvious goals, what that really means remains to be seen. Budget savings from smaller subsidies on settlements and dropping plans to attack Iran could be considered…

      One could consider some rational approach to the problem of economically underrepresented minorities, Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox. The far-right prescription of assimilating them through military or national service is not workable (it is hard to force them to do it, and once you force them, they may just cause more trouble) but improving education, job training etc. could.

      If nothing else, Lapid proved to be a master in marketing. Perhaps he will also take lessons from the demise of Shinui and do something better — he may be vapid, but he is not an idiot.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Coalition which would piss me off the most would include Meretz, Avoda, Hamas and Balad.

        I sure that you’d support them happily.

        >He will definitely push towards normalization of relations with the Obama administration

        Who’s Obama? That useless Afroamerican who’ve stolen the Noble Peace prize?

        Reply to Comment

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