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The Premature End of the Lapid-Bennett Alliance

by Shmuel Rosner

December 9, 2013 | 8:10 am

Yair Lapid, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Naftali Bennett
Photos by Reuters

The last Israeli elections forced Prime Minister Netanyahu to form a coalition he didn't really like. But it was the coalition most Israelis seemed to want, at the center of which two parties played the leading role: secular-centrist YeshAtid, and Zionist-religious Habayit Hayehudi. A somewhat strange alliance was formed between two parties that did not agree on many things but on the other hand were both representative of a younger generation of Israelis that are all tired of old political formulations and want a government that represents the centrist majority and not minority special interests. "The most surprising, revolutionary and positive result of the last elections", I wrote.

On Election Night I also wrote that "Israelis by and large rejected radicalism and voted for moderation. Economically, they opted for Lapid, not for the much more combative (at times socialist) message of Yachimovitch. On the peace front, the hard right disappeared. The right became stronger but not as strong as it was hoping to be, and one must remember that it got stronger by putting on a more moderate appearance. Both Bennett and Lapid understand that moderation is what the voters want".

The alliance between Bennet and Lapid, between these two very different parties – one a right-wing-settler-religious party, the other urban-liberal-centrist-Tel-Avivian party – was refreshing. And it was potentially revolutionary: dealing with Haredi political power could only happen with these two parties holding the reins; looking for pragmatic solutions which are acceptable to most Israelis on state-religion issues seemed possible when these two parties agreed that reducing the level of religious tension is good for Israel. The idea was quite simple: we can't agree on everything but there's more than enough for us to do within the areas of mutual agreement.

But the alliance is now in trouble – predictably so one must say ("Israel's new coalition is problematic, and its chances for long-term survival seem slim", March 14, 2013). The reasons for this are many.

Some of it is the result of PM Netanyahu's maneuvering of Lapid, the rookie. Lapid was too quick to make a claim to Netanyahu's throne, and Netanyahu, always the political paranoid, made sure to put him where he'll learn a lesson and be reduced to a position of someone who can't challenge him (that is, he appointed him Finance Minister). Netanyahu's great success in this endeavor hurt Lapid's party in the polls: the party is 19 mandates strong in the Knesset but would only get 10 mandates if elections were held today (you can see the numbers in our Israel Poll Trend tracker). And it hurt Lapid himself. Two different public approval polls conducted in the last couple of days by pollsters Camil Fuchs and Menachem Lazar put Lapid at the bottom of the list of ministers. The percentage of Israelis who still believe that Lapid is Prime Ministerial material is a meager 3%.

Some of it was the natural disappointment of voters who had little sense of loyalty to Lapid's new party to begin with. Lapid's rise was enabled by Israelis who were searching for the new trendy idea to vote for. They boarded his wagon, and later abandoned it, as was expected. Even a great politician could hardly answer all the demands and wishes of such voters. And Lapid proved to be less than a great politician, making too many unnecessary mistakes along the way (one example here).

The result is a party with great dreams having to deal with a melancholic political reality (again, look at the updated Poll Trend tracker), having a problematic alliance with a party – HabayitHayehudi – that is doing annoyingly better in the polls. Friction became Yesh Atid's only way to get more attention and to try to reverse the trend of voter abandonment. Thus, the gaps between this party and its right-wing sister – gaps that were constructively hidden earlier –needed to be emphasized.

So the two parties went to war over the Haredi draft – the achievement they were jointly supposed to provide. And they have gone to war, in recent days, over gay rights – a secondary issue but one around which it is easy to build a campaign based on differences. They are now at war over the peace process – Lapid hinted today that a change in the coalition might be necessary to achieve peace. In essence he expressed his willingness to abandon Bennett over a goal they, and their respective voters, do not share.

These are sad news for those who liked the shared agenda of the two parties, and the new tone of Israeli politics. It also might not be so good for Netanyahu. When coalitions crumble things get ugly and the result is not always predictable. Obviously, Netanyahu might have other options for a coalition. He can stay with Bennett and invite the Haredi parties in (but TzipiLivni'sHatnua might also leave under such circumstances). Or he can dump Bennett, whom he doesn't really like personally, and invite the Labor Party, under the new leadership of Isaac Herzog, into the coalition – on the pretense of having to save the peace process (but this can hurt Herzog, and it can complicate Netanyahu's life within the Likud Party).

In other words: the end of the Lapid-Bennet alliance is a headache for everyone involved because of both the policies and the political implications it portends. Is there a way for the parties to go back to their old habit of being on good terms? We know from experience that when parties begin to position themselves for the next round of political battles – whether it's a change in the coalition or a nearing election– it is very hard for them to stop. The political genie is out of the bottle. Unfortunately, this has all happened a little too soon, as the alliance has yet to achieve all it could achieve for the better of the country.

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