Israeli voters delivered a painful blow to Binyamin Netanyahu in Tuesday’s election, and halted the country’s worrying drift to the far right. The incumbent prime minister is likely to keep his job but his political bloc failed to put the expansion of West Bank settlements on top of the national agenda, and to sacrifice civil rights in favour of majority rule.
The election’s rising star, Yair Lapid, positioned himself as Israel’s new kingmaker and will be the key player in the next governing coalition. Lapid promised his voters one thing: normality – to live in Israel as if you’re living in western Europe or North America, with a government that worries about education, housing and economic opportunity, rather than Iran’s nuclear programme or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Midway through his recent four-year term “Bibi”, the supposed master politician, lost touch with the Israeli public. Lacking a rival who could challenge his power, he behaved like a monopolist, ignoring the customers. Viewing himself as the saviour of the Jewish people from the wrath of Iran’s atomic bombs – as the Israeli reincarnation of his hero, Winston Churchill – Netanyahu behaved like the king of Judea. He stayed on this message during the campaign, which showed his image under the hollow slogan “A strong prime minister for a strong Israel”, but failed to draft a platform. Rather than engaging the public, Netanyahu made a deal with Avigdor Lieberman, his then foreign minister, to merge their parties for the election. This sealed his victory, but further alienated the voters.
The public wasn’t satisfied with Netanyahu’s attitude, and in the summer of 2011 sent a powerful warning sign to the prime minister. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis marched in the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities in an unprecedented middle-class revolt against the rising cost of living, and of property in particular.
Netanyahu responded by appointing a committee and burying the issue, while arranging a prisoner exchange with Hamas, which brought Gilad Shalit back home from captivity in Gaza. The gambit propelled his popularity for a while, but failed to address the protest’s underlying causes.
The protesters did not seek to oust Netanyahu. They wanted an improved, more attentive, more compassionate Bibi. And they brought to the fore two journalists-turned-politicians: Shelly Yachimovich, who won the Labour party chairmanship, and Lapid, who formed a new centrist party, Yesh Atid (There Is a Future). The two former television celebrities argued that they understand the public mind better than the old guard of Netanyahu and his ilk. In their analysis, Israelis couldn’t care less about the Palestinian issue and the settlements. Instead they crave economic security and better education.
In his weekly newspaper column – which was the most widely read in Israel – and his talk shows, Lapid defined the Israeli mainstream and became its voice. His agenda is full of apparent contradictions: nationalist and admiring the military but seeing Israel as part of the west and its culture. Secular and seeking to break the ultra-orthodox educational autonomy, draft exemption and political power, but respecting Jewish tradition. Supporting the two-state solution, but mistrusting the Palestinian leadership. Identifying with the middle class “slaves” while driving a luxury car. Putting education on top, without having even a high-school diploma.
Between both newcomers, Yachimovich had an early edge over Lapid. But he ran an exemplary campaign, careful not to lose steam over useless fights or to alienate his supporters – while Yachimovich turned her back on her party’s peace legacy in a futile effort to win voters from the right. Lapid’s achievement is all the more remarkable considering his zero military or political experience. He simply gave his voters what they wanted to hear.
Which raises the key question in the wake of Tuesday’s result: can you really live in Tel Aviv and feel like it’s Berlin, with no occupation and settlements barely 20 minutes away? Can Israel isolate itself behind wire and concrete and fix its education and welfare, as if the Palestinians don’t exist? It sounds good in a campaign, but disconnected from real life. And therefore Lapid’s test will be in his ability to pull Netanyahu towards a moderate foreign policy, and not to accept empty pledges of constitutional and social reform in return for sustaining Likud.
Coalition talks are the endgame of Israeli elections, and the political rookie Lapid now awaits a tough poker game with the master of survival, Netanyahu.
Aluf Benn is a columnist and editor-at-large for Ha’aretz. Formerly, he was the Israeli daily newspaper’s diplomatic editor.