The big winner of the 2013 Knesset elections is the 50-year old chairman of the new centrist party Yesh Atid (There is a Future), Yair Lapid. He is now the new political star and king-maker in Israel’s political arena. The optimistic polls gave him 10 mandates days before the January 22, 2013 elections, up from 8 in a previous poll. Lapid stunned the Israeli political pundits with a whopping 19 mandates.
Only a month ago, the Israeli media was abuzz with what it had perceived to be the real contest. The one between Likud-Beitenu and the right-of-center Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) headed by Naftali Bennett, 42, the “wunderkind” of the upcoming elections. The Israeli media reported that Bennett was taking many votes away from the Likud, and emerging as the third party with 14 and possibly 15 mandates. The Likud party, concerned with the Bennett phenomenon, used the last stages of its campaign to vilify Bennett. It did not work. Bennett was halted but not stopped, and the Jewish Home party still racked up12 mandates to make it the fourth largest party list after Likud, the Yesh Atid, and Labor on the left.
The Likud merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu (Israel our Home) party held together 27 and 15 mandates respectively, 42 altogether. The combined party lost 11 seats, a good many of them to Bennett’s Jewish Home party. The biggest loss however was suffered by Ariel Sharon’s breakaway party (from the Likud) Kadima, which held 28 mandates in the previous Knesset and has barely passed the threshold with 2 mandates, a loss of 26, most of which went to Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Defections from the supposedly centrist Kadima party, even before the elections were called, (some like Tzachi Hanegbi and Avi Dichter returned to the Likud) doomed it. The resignation of Tzipi Livni after her defeat in the Kadima primaries to Shaul Mofaz (who became chairman of Kadima) shattered it completely. Livni took with her a number of Kadima Knesset members as well.
As soon as the returns from the polling stations began to show up in the Likud-Beitenu headquarters, Prime Minister Netanyahu called Yair Lapid and told him “We have an opportunity to do great things for the State of Israel. The elections are behind us and now let us focus on bettering the lives of Israel’s citizens.” Lapid rejected the idea of a “preventive bloc” and a “different government” made up of the center-left with silent support from the Arab parties less than a day after the elections results were announced. In doing so, Lapid essentially endorsed Netanyahu as the next Prime Minister, and a coalition with Likud Beitenu. Lapid will most likely be offered the position of Foreign Minister, and his party will be given 4 additional portfolios including possibly the prestigious Education Ministry.
A combination of Likud, Beitenu and Yesh Atid alone will make for 50 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. The addition of the Shas (the ultra-orthodox Sephardi) party into the coalition, provided it accepts the provision of “sharing the burden,” (which is to draft ultra-orthodox Yeshiva students into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), would bring the Netanyahu coalition a total of 61 mandates, the necessary majority to govern, albeit at a bare minimum. Both Netanyahu (and his partner Lieberman) and Lapid consider the incorporation of the welfare receiving haredi (ultra-orthodox) community into the workforce, along with service in the IDF essential.
Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party, with its 12 mandates, should be a natural member of the Netanyahu coalition, and its inclusion would solidify the coalition with 73 mandates. Lapid moreover, would rather see Bennett in the coalition than Shas. Netanyahu, for personal reasons, might prefer the opposite – Shas first and then perhaps Bayit Yehudi. Bennett and his party have been advocating the annexation to Israel of “area C,” which under the Oslo Accords, is governed by Israeli military and civilian authorities. Netanyahu, fearing international isolation and conflict with the Obama administration, is mute on the subject and would certainly not push it prior to resolving the nuclear crisis with Iran. Lapid is rather ambivalent on this issue. In his election campaign he focused principally on domestic, social and economic issues and virtually ignored foreign affairs.
More pressing for Netanyahu and seemingly for Lapid is how to cut $10 billion from the budget, including subsidies for ultra-orthodox yeshivot. Shas and the Torah Judaism party (Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox) bitterly oppose such a move while Bennett’s party welcomes it. There is also common ground between Likud-Beitenu, Lapid, and Bennett on reforming Israel’s electoral system, as well as in dealing with lowering the cost of living and solving the housing crisis. Young couples in Israel cannot afford to buy a home, and there aren’t enough apartments to rent. Netanyahu promised to deal with the crisis following the 2011 street protests. This is also a major issue for Lapid and Bennett.
While most of the 2013 election campaign dealt with domestic-economic issues as mentioned, the leftist Meretz and Livni’s center-left Ha’tnuah delved into the need for negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is the clear choice for most Israelis to handle foreign policy. Israelis have become cynical about a real peace deal with the Palestinians, and they support Netanyahu’s action with regards to Mahmoud Abbas. Most Israelis still believe in a two-state solution but recognize that at this time Israel has no viable peace partner, and agree with the status-quo.
There is at the same time public awareness of the external realities surrounding the Jewish state. The neighboring states of Egypt and Syria are driven by an Islamist fervor that is threatening to engulf Jordan (Jordan has the longest border with Israel and its government is Israel’s only true peace partner in the region). Hamas and Hezbollah are sworn enemies dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and its sponsor, Iran, poses an existential threat to Israel. Further afield, the European Union is increasingly more hostile to Israel. U.S. support is therefore more critical than ever.
Obama’s second term however, harbors ominous signs for Israel. His national security nominees are unfriendly towards Israel and seek to appease Iran. Obama’s offensive remark on the eve of Israel’s elections, suggesting that Netanyahu “Does not understand what Israel’s best interests are,” and that his conduct will drive Israel into grave international isolation, was a gross interference in Israel’s domestic affairs and reveals his contempt for one of America’s closest allies. It is apparent that the next four years will be hard for Israel with Obama in the White House. It is likely that Obama might abstain on UNSC votes to impose sanctions on Israel, and may press Israel to make unilateral concessions to the Palestinians, or even push Israel to accept the indefensible 1949 armistice lines. He might again demand a freeze on settlement expansion.
Israel needs a wide national unity government of 96 mandates (Likud Beitenu, Yesh Atid, Bayit Yehudi, Shas, Labor (15), Ha’tnuah (6), and Kadima (2) that would enable Netanyahu to speak on behalf of all Israelis. This will certainly insure that the U.S. Congress and the American people will stand by Israel. It will also limit the damage Obama might be able to inflict. To accomplish that, Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yachimovich (Labor party leader) must put aside their personal ambitions and join Netanyahu for the sake of Israel’s national interest.