Sea Change: Israelis bet new party’s vision offers brighter future

In the run-up to the elections, the vast majority of media commentators and so-called experts relentlessly classified these elections as the least interesting and lackluster in recent memory. This is the ninth time I have witnessed an Israeli election cam- paign in all of its sometimes wondrous and often questionable glory. While I am far from an expert, I scratched my head at the media’s dismissal of the interest in these elections due to their potentially game-changing ramifications for Israeli society.

It was a foregone conclusion that the recent Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance would gain the largest amount of seats and that Binyamin Netanyahu would form the next government. This created an illusion of apathy and set a trap that the hyper- alert Israeli media generally avoids. They should have thought of basketball: When a team leads by 20 points at halftime, the false sense of security can lead to an upset by the time the final buzzer sounds. From the moment Bibi Netanyahu called for early elections, every move he and his party made smacked of the arrogance of the overwhelming halftime lead, followed by the panic of not knowing what to do when the opposing team gains momentum.

Yes, the Likud-YB coalition won the most seats, but the number plummeted to 31 from the combined 42 seats in the outgoing Knesset. The Likud itself will have only 20 seats, just one more than Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party, unanimously regarded as the election winner due to the ex- traordinary success of a first-time party whose 19 newly elected legislators have never served in the Knesset.
The morning after the election veteran columnist Dan Margalit wrote in the pro-Bibi paper Israel Today, “The Likud suffered a decisive political blow. They ran a flawed campaign from the moment they joined forces with Yisrael Beiteinu all the way to the ridiculous recruitment of Kahlon.” (Two days before the elections, Bibi attempted to appoint Moshe Kahlon, the popular Likud minister who had announced he would not continue in the next government, to chair the Israel Lands Authority to oversee reduction of outrageously high housing prices.)

The Likud-YB made many errors, four of them disastrous:
– The alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu alienated many Likud voters who do not identify with YB leader Avigdor Lieberman’s Russian immigrant agenda.
– Likud’s intensely negative campaign against Naftali Bennet, the young and energizing new leader of the right-wing national- ist religious Bayit Yehudi ( Jewish Home) party, turned off po- tential Likud voters who in turn voted for other parties –mostly for Lapid, ironically.
– Likud’s flawed primary system created a list of right-wing extremist candidates, who ousted almost all the well-respected party veterans, including Menachem Begin’s son, Benny.
– Likud completely missed the boat by not focusing on the issues that concern the public. Security issues, the Palestinian problem and even Iran were not at the top of the public’s list. Netanyahu chose to focus on security to the exclusion of internal problems. Though these issues are pressing, most Israelis real- ize that we must deal with our internal problems to be strong enough to cope with external existential challenges. All the Likud campaign could muster was the slogan, “Netanyahu, a strong leader.” Aluf Benn of Haaretz summed it up when he said, “The Likud ran a very poor campaign. They kept showing shots of Bibi at the borders, with the bomb drawing at the U.N., at the Western Wall with a kippah, but this time the voters were concerned first and foremost with issues other than a united Jerusalem, Nasrallah or Ahmadinejad.”

While the tent cities and 500,000-strong protests of dis- gruntled Israelis are no more, the high cost of living and the inequitable burden on the middle class remains, as does the political system that allows a government to arrogantly maintain 34 ministers (half of the coalition members are ministers). Those ministers not only fail to solve the problems of the majority, but they cater to sectors who do not serve in the military, and they turn a blind eye to extremists.

More astonishing than the result itself was the failure of the experienced pundits to recognize this resentment was still brew- ing and would come out on election day.
Given this state of affairs, it is surprising that Likud-YB did not lose even more seats. Netanyahu and the Likud-YB were the clear losers in these elections, and centrist Yesh Atid – and to a lesser extent the right-wing Bayit Yehudi and left-wing Meretz party – were the winners. These elections transcended and maybe shattered the traditional right-wing, left-wing paradigm, because the issues of these elections obliterated party lines. The record number of 46 new Knesset members attests to the desire for change.

Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot Ahronot: “It started in the 2011 summer protests. Come fall, the tents were removed; the general feeling was that the protest was dead and buried. That was wrong. The seeds were sown and waiting for the rain to sprout. The rain arrived. The protest demands were not met and the token steps that were taken helped the ultra-orthodox more than the young middle-class majority. The feelings of disgust from the rules of the political game did not die, they got stron- ger. They transcended Facebook and influenced not only the urban younger generation but impacted other age groups and layers. The votes of disgust went to Lapid and the other parties who represent something different.”

Ben Caspit of Ma’ariv commented, “There is no King Bibi (referring to the Time magazine cover last year). We are not a banana republic, not a monarchy. Lapid might be a new driver, but Bibi is a drunk driver. Let them drive together. The public said that you (Bibi) won’t be alone at the wheel any longer.” Channel 2’s political correspondent, Udi Segal, was no less blunt: “The voters said you are Prime Minister, not King, and it’s not forever, and as we cannot rely on you and we don’t think that you’re a strong leader, we are going to tell you who your coalition partners will be and what the agenda will be.”

On election night, when the first returns bore out the exit polls, Netanyahu and Lapid ended up addressing the faithful at their respective headquarters at the same time, which the networks covered with a split screen.
Sima Kadmon, writing in Yediot, described the moment: “On the left side of the screen, Lapid. On the right, Netanyahu. On the left, the future. On the right, the past. There is no other way to put it. The public performed a no-confidence vote in Netanyahu and not only in him. The public showed their disgust in the entire political system and proved that they want new faces without connection to their political affiliation.” This is the true revelation of the 2013 elections. They were possibly as dramatic as the 1977 elections, which saw the his- torical victory of Menachem Begin and the Likud. Lapid has ridden the wave of the Israeli public’s desire for resolution of social issues to overwhelming success. If he joins the government and cannot deliver, he, his party and this rare opportunity to change the system could be vanquished for a long time to come, perhaps until it is too late.
Nahum Barnea writes, “The success at the ballot box creates huge expectation amongst the voters. If in a matter of weeks or months these expectations are not fulfilled, they will not want to hear about him (Lapid); 19 seats will evaporate. Until election day, Lapid was a national darling. The darling status ended with the counting of the votes.”

Or, as Channel 2 pundit Amnon Abramovitch put it by play- ing on the name Yesh Atid, “The difference between there is a future and there was a future is about one day.” As I write, the coalition negotiations are just beginning and the structure of the next government is not set. Lapid’s ability to translate his electoral success and fulfill Yesh Atid’s agenda will determine whether these elections will truly be a watershed
event or yet another disillusioning failure of a centrist party. Netanyahu will be the prime minister, but Lapid has the power to call the shots in forming the government and be- come its moving force. Netanyahu needs Lapid almost more than Lapid needs Netanyahu.

Lapid’s success was based on his tenacious repetition of the four main tenets of the Yesh Atid platform: No more re- ligious exemptions from military or national service, electoral reform, lowering the price of housing and a reduced govern- ment. He must immediately succeed on the first issue and at least one of the other three. The religious parties completely reject compulsory service for yeshiva students. For Yesh Atid, it is the do-or-die issue. The brutal coalition negotiations must deliver a written agreement with Netanyahu that a meaningful compulsory service law for all 18-year-olds will be put forth when the government is sworn in. Without this, Netanyahu will do to Lapid what he has done often in the past.

Sima Kadmon quotes an anonymous source: “When Netanyahu needs someone, there are three stages: He woos and charms them with promises, telling them everything they want to hear, then exploits them and in the end betrays them.” She adds, Netanyahu will probably find in Lapid “a much tougher and less naïve figure than he appears to be.”
I hope Lapid has the foresight to film coalition ne- gotiations. In the world of Israeli politics, where truth is sometimes in short demand and spin doctors are everywhere, it could be valuable evidence if Yesh Atid does not join the government and instead ends up leading the opposition.

Likud, the ultra-orthodox parties and all of the old order will attempt to cause the failure of the 19 Yesh Atid Knesset newcomers, who will aggressively practice their campaign slogan, “We have come to change.” Add this to the pressure of coalition negotiations and one gets a feeling for the uphill battle that Lapid and his party will have to fight to impact Israel’s future. Whether or not they join the government, they can create a more civilized model for Israeli politics, one that will not be based on the old, bitterly partisan lines. The fact that none of the 19 have served in the Knesset before offers hope that this might be possible.
The curtain has come down on the first two acts of the Israeli democratic process. The campaign was a worthy warm up to a very good election. Now the third and final act of the show – the coalition horse-trading – begins. Like most Israelis, I wish for the sake of my children and for all of Israel that the hope of the 2013 elections is at least partially fulfilled.

Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at mylantanz@gmail.com.

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