The Israeli elections are being hailed by foreign media as a triumph for the political “center,” when it is nothing of the kind. That definition depends on a simplistic reading of the political map that dictates that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is rebuked, which he surely was, then it must mean the right lost. But in Israel, there are many different kinds of “right wing.”
Netanyahu certainly came out a big loser here. He bungled the budget, bungled the economy, made Israel look hysterical on the world stage with his cartoon Iranian bomb and his hysterical reaction to the Palestinians’ UN upgrade. Then he moved elections up to avoid the budget fight, joined with the fascist party, Yisrael Beiteinu and found his own party moving so far right that he looked like a communist-peacenik by comparison. Not surprisingly, his ineptitude cost him a lot of seats.
Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party won 19 seats making it the second biggest party in the new Knesset, is indeed a centrist on many domestic issues, and on some he even leans closer to the moderate left. But that’s not what most media outside of Israel are concerned with; and on the question of Israel’s 45-year old occupation, he’s not very different from the Likud leader from whom he got so many votes.
Yes, Yesh Atid includes a plank supporting the two-state solution in its party platform, where Netanyahu’s Likud officially opposes it. But that plank is the only reference to international issues and comes last on their list of planks. It is simply not a central issue for Yesh Atid, and in this it is little different from Netanyahu’s stance as PM which pays lip service to the two-state solution but is obstructive of it in practice.
Lapid is a political opportunist, and as such can be moved in many different directions by the political winds. But those winds, these days, are not blowing toward a concerted effort to end the occupation. Lapid is sensitive to this, and so he kicked off his campaign in the settlement of Ariel. This was meant to appeal to the right while also maintaining his “centrist” image because Ariel is one of the famed “three settlement blocs” that are generally understood in Israel as being the territory Israel will keep in any agreement. The Palestinians may not agree, especially since Ariel extends well into the West Bank and would complicate effective territorial contiguity if there ever was a Palestinian state.
Lapid doesn’t stop there. He holds the belief, which he has stated publicly more than once, that if Israel holds fast to its positions not only on the Palestinian Right of Return but also on keeping all of Jerusalem, the Palestinians will eventually relent. That kind of detachment from the realities of the Palestinian national passions will work very well with Netanyahu. Indeed, those beliefs reflect Bibi’s own positions very well.
Might a centrist at least build a bridge to Israel’s Palestinian citizens, a part of Israeli society that is becoming more and more alienated all the time? Lapid made it clear in his campaign that he wanted to bring the Arab community into military service, an issue which speaks much louder to Tel Aviv’s Jewish community than it does in Israel’s Arab towns and villages. But even that seems like little more than window dressing, as Lapid demonstrated the day after his election triumph.
Laying to rest speculation that he might join with the other “centrist,” left wing and Arab parties, Lapid stated that he would not be part of “a blocking majority with Hanin Zoabis.” It was a silly statement; Zoabi, a Knesset member from the Balad party, an Arab party that holds three seats has virtually no real power in Israel. She is bold and does things that anger hardcore Zionists and get headlines, but that’s about it. The blocking coalition would have been focused on Lapid, Labor’s Shelly Yachimovitch and HaTnuah’s Tzipi Livni. But even then, unless they could get one of the ultra-Orthodox parties to stand with them (unlikely given Lapid’s hostility toward that group,) they couldn’t have blocked Netanyahu’s coalition. So why name Zoabi? Other than singling her out for being an “uppity Arab,” there was no reason.
But the reason that this was not a victory for a more moderate stance toward the occupation goes beyond Lapid, and comes back to the Israeli voters. Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now reported that Israeli pollster Mina Tzemah found that about 50% of Lapid’s voters define themselves as right wing. Some significant part of that number was made up of Likud voters who preferred Lapid after Likud’s primary which elected a much more radically right wing set of candidates. Another significant portion of Lapid’s vote must have come from the crashing fall of the Kadima party, which went from being the biggest party with 28 seats in the last Knesset to barely making the threshold to land two seats in the new one. Kadima, when it was in power, ignored the Arab Peace Initiative for years and then, as was revealed in the Palestine Papers, rejected a Palestinian offer that included almost total capitulation to Israeli demands on virtually every issue at the time. They were the party of endless negotiation.
That fits well with Lapid’s stated demand from Netanyahu. He said he would not sit in a government which would not negotiate with the Palestinians. Indeed, when he stated his priorities after the election, he identified Israel’s isolation due to the stalled peace process. His concern is not resolving the conflict, but rather that Israel get back to the appearance of moving toward ending the occupation. Kadima was good at that. Bibi has chosen a different path. Lapid offers Bibi a way to get back to it. This statement was likely a clue that Lapid wants to be Foreign Minister.
Bibi might indeed decide to make him Foreign Minister, allowing Lapid’s much more charming visage to replace both last term’s technical Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman (who had to quit when he was indicted) and the de facto one, a combination of Ehud Barak and Netanyahu. The idea is to improve Israel’s face in the international arena and stem the criticism Israel has been facing, especially from Europe. A diplomat who can ingratiate himself in Washington and European capitals, rather than annoying or offending American and European leaders as both Bibi and Lieberman repeatedly did (Barak was a bit more skilled, though his welcome too was wearing thin) could give Israel a little more breathing space as it stalls and avoids any real progress on the occupation and builds more settlements.
We’ve yet to see exactly who will be in the new governing coalition. Right now, it seems Bibi is not particularly interested in courting the election’s other big winner, Naftali Bennett and his HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party. That could well change, but for now Netanyahu is more interested in securing Lapid. But if he gets Lapid, Bennett’s party will still be important, since both Lapid and Likud Beiteinu’s number 2, Avigdor Lieberman, are very hostile to ultra-Orthodox parties. That will make it harder to get Shas and United Torah Judaism into the coalition. With Bennett and Lapid, and the expectation that HaTnuah and Kadima will also join the government, Bibi would have 69 seats, a very stable coalition.
Does the opposition have any potential to push for an end to the occupation? Put simply, no. That opposition will be led by Labor, whose showing in this election was extremely disappointing. They won only two seats more than they did in 2009, despite the demise of Kadima, which should have meant lots of voters for them to pick up. But even if they had done better, it would have been discouraging. Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch avoided the occupation like the plague in her campaign. Indeed, she did almost nothing to challenge Bibi on defense in any way. If Livni does not join the government, she will be the loudest voice in the opposition calling for negotiations, but, as we saw during her time as Foreign Minister from Kadima, her willingness to actually conclude a deal does not match her rhetoric, which itself is the product of the failed Oslo process to which she remains wed.
Bibi pushed up these elections due to a crisis over the massive budget cuts that are still almost certain to come now. The more centrist government might be able to pass a budget that the right-wing previous Knesset could not. And there is good reason to believe that the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, already opposed by virtually the entire military and intelligence brass, has become significantly more remote now. That is surely a good thing.
But anyone who believes this government is going to do anything more to end the occupation is simply dreaming. What it does have the ability to do is cast more of an illusion than its predecessor. With all the new settlement units that were announced just in the past year, this government can actually accelerate settlement growth significantly without announcing new plans. In other words, they can expand quietly, without the controversy the last government constantly courted. This government can also say nicer things to the Palestinians, even find a way to sit down with them if they can do the dance well enough, without ever having to make any real progress. That’s what this election left us. The picture is not pretty.