ISRAEL VOTES 2013/NEWS ANALYSIS: Can Lapid and Netanyahu make common cause?

Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid addressing party supporters in Tel Aviv following the release of exit poll results from the Israeli elections, Jan. 22, 2013. (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash 90/JTA)
Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid addressing party supporters in Tel Aviv following the release of exit poll results from the Israeli elections, Jan. 22, 2013. (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash 90/JTA)

(JTA) — This week’s election in Israel was a watershed — but not in the ways one might think.

In almost every election cycle, the campaign has been about one thing. To adapt James Carville’s famous adage: It’s about security, stupid.

Except this time, it wasn’t.

The reason is counterintuitive: With Israel facing immense security challenges on everything from Iran to the Arab Spring to Hamas’ growing strength in the Palestinian territories, there is wide consensus among Israelis that now is not a good time to take risks for peace. Polls show that even as most Israelis still favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most believe peace is not achievable in the near term.

And with no credible alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the vast majority of Israelis took for granted that he would win and lead the next government anyway.

So when it came time to go to the polls, an unusually large number of Israelis cast their votes for parties focused mostly on domestic socioeconomic issues and hardly at all on security — namely, Yesh Atid, which picked up 19 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Labor, which won 15 seats.

Meanwhile, the right-wing bloc in Netanyahu’s coalition lost a bit of ground, slipping to 61 seats from 65. But it would be a mistake to interpret the right wing as nearly deadlocked with the left, as some headlines have suggested.

Rather, the other side of the political aisle is divided. Yesh Atid’s 19 seats belong in the political center, not on the left. To wit: Party leader Yair Lapid made clear during the campaign and after that he is interested in joining a Netanyahu-led coalition.

The center-left controls 23 seats — Labor with 15, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua with six and the eviscerated Kadima with two. The left has just six, in the unabashedly secular and pro-peace Meretz party. And the Arab-Israeli parties have 11.

The right wing, though it hails from a multiplicity of parties, including Orthodox and nationalist ones, is not nearly as divided — ideologically or pragmatically. These are the parties that have stood together in a steadfast coalition for four years — practically an eternity in the Israeli political universe. Even Naftali Bennett, leader of the new nationalist Jewish Home party, which catapulted to 12 seats in the new Knesset, is a former Netanyahu chief of staff.

The man of the hour following the election is, of course, Lapid. Son of the late Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, a Holocaust survivor who worked as a journalist before leading the liberal, secular Shinui party from 1999 to 2006, Yair Lapid long has been a well-known and popular figure in Israel.

For years he was a respected TV commentator and journalist focusing more on domestic and cultural issues than on security or politics. But Lapid began publicly flirting with the idea of entering the Knesset amid the massive socioeconomic protests in the summer of 2011, and last January he formally inaugurated his new party, Yesh Atid (Hebrew for There is a Future).

The party’s unexpectedly strong showing this week — capturing nearly one-sixth of the Knesset — answered a question that has been on the table since the 2011 protests: Would the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who took to the streets that summer be able to translate their energy into political power come election time?

The emphatic yes delivered by Yesh Atid’s supporters highlights the growing importance of kitchen-table issues in Israel, particularly for hard-working Israelis in good jobs who are finding it hard to make ends meet.

Tel Aviv, where Yesh Atid had its strongest showing, consistently ranks as one of the world’s most expensive cities. In central Tel Aviv, apartments cost $5,700 to $7,100 per square meter. The average Israeli salary is about $2,572 per month, and families with two wage earners earn approximately $3,428 per month, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Teachers in Israel earn an average of $1,666 a month — among the lowest in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Cars and gasoline cost nearly double what they do in the United States, taxes are much higher and even basic household goods cost more. Israelis were outraged to learn that the ubiquitous Israeli soup nuts made by Osem carry a higher price in Israel than they do in New York, seemingly defying all logic.

These are the things that Lapid talked about in his campaign, and they struck a chord, particularly with young Israelis.

Remarkably, Lapid rode to victory with a slate of candidates as diverse as Israel, a rarity in the country’s hyper-factionalized politics. Yesh Atid’s 19 Knesset members include avowed secularists and Orthodox rabbis, figures associated with the right and left, blacks and whites, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and eight women.

“The citizens of Israel today said no to politics of fear and hate,” Lapid said Tuesday night. “They said no to the possibility that we might splinter off into sectors, and groups and tribes and narrow-interest groups. They said no to extremists, and they said no to anti-democratic behavior.”

Now the question is what Lapid will do with his newfound power. Clearly he believes that he can have more influence from inside the government than from outside it, and Netanyahu reached out to Lapid as early as election night to invite him to join his coalition.

The two are unlikely to find themselves in deep disagreement on Arab-Israeli issues. Lapid is not sanguine about the likelihood of progress in negotiations with the Palestinians, and he has made clear that he wants Israel to retain its large West Bank settlement blocs and all of Jerusalem.

The more potent issue is likely to be what to do about drafting haredi Orthodox Israelis into the Israel Defense Forces. The longstanding draft exemption for haredi Israelis — a source of much resentment among those who serve — expired last summer. But so far there has been little change on the ground.

It’s unclear where Netanyahu stands on the issue. He has spoken of the need to change the status quo, but he has been unwilling to oppose the haredi Orthodox parties, his coalition partners, on the issue.

This time around, Netanyahu does not need the haredi parties to assemble a coalition, and the haredim alone are not enough for Netanyahu to reoccupy the Prime Minister’s Office. In theory, Netanyahu can cobble together enough seats if both Lapid and Bennett’s Jewish Home party join him, giving him a slim 62-seat majority.

It’s not an outlandish scenario. Bennett also wants to end the haredi draft exemption, though his hard-line views on Palestinian issues, including opposition to statehood and annexation of the West Bank, likely make some of Lapid’s progressive supporters queasy. With the Palestinian issue relegated to the back burner, however, both Bennett and Lapid might take a pragmatic approach and join with Netanyahu.

Getting Netanyahu to take action to end the haredi draft exemption is another matter. The prime minister is famously risk averse, and moving ahead on an issue that could doom a future relationship with the haredi parties would be a huge political gamble.

Which is to say that whatever coalition Netanyahu manages to put together may not hold for long — and that might bring everybody right back to where they started.