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Israel’s politics: Less ideology, more pragmatic centrism

by Shmuel Rosner

January 10, 2012 | 6:12 am

Likud, Lieberman, Kadima, Labor, Lapid, Shas, Deri, Meretz.
The red columns simulate elections in which Tzipi Livni is the head of Kadima, the blue columns simulate election in which Shaul Mofaz is the head of Kadima. Yediot Survey (Source: Ynet news)

Yair Lapid is a TV personality, a celebrity, a widely read columnist, an author of books. He is smart, but not too smart, opinionated, but in ways that do not seem to anger anyone, ambitious. And apparently – very ambitious.

Earlier this week Lapid, the son of the late Justice Minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, finally confirmed the many rumors, quit his job as anchor of Israel’s most-watched weekly news magazine, and made the big leap, from being a journalist to being a politician. He is going to have a party, he is running for election, he wants to have an impact. He will have an impact: Polls released in Israel this morning give his new party from 11 to 12 mandates. Other polls gave him as low as 6 mandates and as many as 16. Not bad for a party with barely an agenda, with no list of candidates, with no money and no campaign – and with no election date in sight.

Speculation within the political world put the expected date for the next election at the end of 2012, just before a new budget is scheduled for a Knesset vote (and not long before American election day). It might (or might not) be on the actual date of the elections. Whatever the case, Lapid will have enough time to get organized, but also enough time to lose steam. Such initial enthusiasm regarding the prospect of new parties and new leaders does not always translate into actual votes come election day (if you want one notable example, go back and study the devastating story of the Merkaz Party of the late nineties).

Thus, the unending talk of politics in recent days should be taken with a grain of salt. The media is making a big deal out of it for four reasons:

1. Lapid is “one of us”, and there’s nothing the media likes more than taking about the media.
2. Lapid is a charismatic personality, and having his photo on the front page might sell papers.
3. Most of the media is tilting to the left, and waiting for a political big bang that has the potential to bring the Netanyahu era to an end.
4. Let’s face it: Nothing of the greatest importance had happened here for some time. Negotiations with the Palestinians are boring, women’s issues lost appeal after weeks of discussion, the American race doesn’t quite excite Israelis – so what else is there?

Reading the polls this morning, one thing is clear: Lapid has a shot at becoming a power broker. He is not going to be Israel’s next Prime Minister, but he might be the one charged with crowning the next Prime Minister. Is he qualified to do such thing? We know quite a lot about Lapid’s beliefs: He really is a centrist, a pragmatist, he is not looking to pick fights that he can’t win, but is holding to some principles on which he will not compromise. In the coming days, I expect to hear lot of bickering both from right and left about Lapid’s lack of clear ideology. I’d disregard the bickering – it will mostly come from those unhappy with Lapid’s agenda, from those wanting him to be more forceful for or against something, to be more combative against the ultra-Orthodox (his father’s style), or more supportive of the Israeli Spring social movements (they will discover to their disappointment that Lapid isn’t an anarchist). You’ll get the usual share of those wanting him to become a champion of “end to occupation” causes, and others thinking that he’s the one charged with educating the “left” on the virtues of settlements and land and the complications of security.

Lapid’s strength thus far, though, rests on his ability to be neither a leftist nor a rightist, neither a zealot ideology nor a cynic. He is the embodiment – the handsome and eloquent embodiment – of the Israeli center. Of the confused Israeli canter. He is the speaker for those who have strong Zionist feelings, but who also feel uncomfortable with the way Israel is handling the Palestinian issue. He is the speaker of all those that can still see the virtue and the sacrifice of settler society, while not wanting this awe-inspiring society to become so dominant as to force its values on a reluctant Israeli public. He is as nice and as boring as only moderates can be.

According to all recent polls, Lapid will not necessarily change the overall picture of Israel’s political arena. His votes will be coming mostly from the center, making Kadima much smaller and weaker, but keeping the option of a center-left coalition a fairly distant one. Not even with another new party, an ultra-Orthodox party headed by former minister (and convicted criminal) Aryeh Deri, can the center-left establish a stable coalition such as the one Netanyahu is now enjoying.

What might change is Netanyahu’s maneuvering power following the next election. With the centrist Lapid possibly more willing to join a Netanyahu coalition than Kadima (Lapid doesn’t expect to be PM, Livni does – there’s a lot of ego involved with such ambitions), Netanyahu might have a viable path towards being less dependent on the hardcore right-wingers and the ultra-Orthodox parties. He might be in a position to form a coalition that could actually move forward those things that the Israeli center had been waiting for all along.

The question of course is two-fold:

A. Does Netanyahu also want these “things” to be moved forward?
B. Would he be willing to risk his long-term alliance with the right and the Orthodox to achieving these things?

 

 

 

 

 

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