Israel's Elections: Going Forward
The Israeli elections last week saw a meteoric rise of a centrist party, and disproved near-universal forecasts of a rise of the religious right.
What do last week's elections say about Israel's future defense policies?
Israelis returned Netanyahu to the prime minister's seat, meaning that the electorate would like him to continue to steer the country through this chaotic and dangerous era. The elections results also showed that voters backed Netanyahu's hard work on tackling the Iranian threat, but remained deeply concerned over domestic issues, which Netanyahu's last coalition of ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties failed to address.
Lapid, located on the center-right of the political map, is no dove. He is pragmatic; he does not hold ideological or religious objections to an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. He has stated, rather, that Israel has no peace partner.
At the same time, Lapid and his party have expressed displeasure over the fact that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been able to score victories over Israel in the diplomatic arena. Lapid has therefore called for reopening talks with Abbas, if only to prove Israel's willingness to pursue a peace plan.
Lapid has also advocated a unilateral dismantling of far-flung outposts in the West Bank, while consolidating the major settlement blocs -- with or without a peace agreement.
On the most critical question of all -- whether Israel should launch a military strike on Iran -- Lapid has limited himself to calling on Netanyahu to do a better job of coordinating Israel's position with that of the US.
He expressed concern over the dysfunctional state of relations between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, and the ramifications of poor relations on future efforts to stop Iran.
In all likelihood, Lapid and his new party will join Prime Minister Netanyahu in forming the next coalition. If he joins the government, Lapid is expected to support Netanyahu's main focus -- stopping the Iranian nuclear program.
How did Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid [There Is a Future] party -- whose members have never sat in parliament -- overnight become the second largest political force in Israel?
The answer resides in the quiet and growing alarm mainstream Israelis are feeling over the way the country's resources are diverted to serve narrow minority interests at the majority's expense.
Lapid merely pointed out problems that were known to all, but also promised to repair the glaring flaws, while enjoying a clean-cut image, free of the political baggage that had tarred the old guard in the eyes of much of the electorate.
Lapid's campaign highlighted the fact that middle class Israeli families -- the engine of the country's economy -- are struggling to make ends meet, yet significant funds are being diverted to support a parallel ultra-Orthodox society, which has its own education system. Many of those who study at ultra-Orthodox seminaries do not end up joining the workforce, and remain dependent on state subsidies.
While a majority of secular and Orthodox national-religious Israelis risk their lives to serve in the military and protect their families, most ultra-Orthodox do not (although a growing number are.)
Lapid's proposed solutions: A universal draft to the army or civilian national service for all Israelis, and limiting the number of state-sponsored seminary students to 400 (the current number of students is 60,000).
Lapid has also called for a change to Israel's proportional representation system, to decrease the number of political parties, thereby limiting the ability of small parties to extort special privileges from ruling coalitions.
Israelis are also outraged by economic oligopolies, which are inflating prices of basic commodities, as well as the failure of past governments to protect citizens from exploitative corporations. The only exception to this is the outgoing communications minister, Moshe Kahlon, who reformed regulations and introduced new competition into the mobile phone industry, resulting in plummeting prices, and as a result became a national hero.
A significant numbers of hardworking Israeli families are in perpetual debt, while others -- due to the inflated housing prices as a result of the state owning 93% of all lands, as well as bureaucratic red tape slowing down the construction process -- are unable even to dream of owning their own home.
The old guard of Israeli politics is perceived as being out of touch, and tinged by cronyism, as well as by apathy to the common person.
Neither foreign nor domestic media outlets were able to identify these undercurrents prior to the elections, but Lapid, previously a high profile newspaper columnist, talk show host, and news presenter, did.
While the media was enchanted by the fanfare surrounding the pro-settlements Bayit Yehudi [Jewish Home] party and its charismatic leader, Naftali Bennett, Lapid was appearing on live television programs with his political rivals, going head-to-head with leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and driving his message home.
He also made good use of Facebook and YouTube further to promote his points; he reached many potential voters at little cost, and tapped into their worries and frustrations.
Lapid made headlines by producing a diagram of a fuse bomb, in reference to the diagram produced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the United Nations to highlight the dangers of Iran's nuclear program. Mimicking the visual aid, Lapid, instead of warning of a nuclear Iran, showed his audience how close the middle class is to collapse -- a development, he argued, as serious a threat to Israel as any security threat.
Many members of the public, as the election results showed, apparently agreed. Lapid's election success is a reflection of the widespread view among Israelis: that external threats do not mean that the country's house should not be put in better order.
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