LAST WEEK, ISRAELIS WENT TO THE POLLS – with some surprising results. Instead of walking away with the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, which had joined forces with the Yisrael Beitenu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman, won with a much narrower margin than anticipated. Perhaps even more surprising, the newly-formed Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid, surged ahead to take second place in the vote.
What does it all mean? At press time, the process of forming a coalition government had only just begun to take shape with Netanyahu and Lapid reportedly meeting for about two and a half hours the night of Jan. 24 to discuss their potential coalition. To find out what the vote signified – and what might lie ahead — we spoke with two well-respected experts in Middle East politics and culture: Dr. Donna Divine and Dr. Fred Lazin.
Dr. Donna Divine is Morningstar Family Professor in Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College, as well as associate faculty member at the University of Haifa and Bar Ilan University in Israel. A resident of West Hartford, Divine spent the month of June co-facilitating a study and internship experience in Jerusalem, part of Smith’s Global Engagement Seminar program. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and her PhD from Columbia University. Fluent in three of the major languages of the Middle East, Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish, she has written on Zionist immigration to Palestine during the British Mandate.
Dr. Fred Lazin is professor emeritus of local government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Lazin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and received his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. He has written and edited 10 books dealing with public policy in the U.S., Israel, and developing countries; Israeli politics and society; and Jews in American politics.
JL: The election results seemed to take everyone by surprise. To what do you attribute the weakening of support for Netanyahu?
DIVINE: Although most voters considered Netanyahu the only candidate who heads a party prepared to be prime minister, a significant number seem to believe that he is not leading the country in the right direction. In the past several months, Netanyahu declared he would call elections because he could not resolve the issue of drafting students in Yeshivot without losing support for his coalition. Then he signed a merger with Kadima to resolve the issue thus postponing elections. But the merger fell apart after a few months as did the capacity to forge a policy on this matter, convincing Netanyahu to call elections.
He lost considerable control over the LIkud Party when the party’s primaries returned very right wing people and essentially marginalized long time associates of the Prime Minister, like Beni Begin and Dan Meridor. Moshe Feiglin led a kind of internal insurgency to change the party structure and eventually its policy stances. But the people who voted in the new members of this list were probably people who voted, in the general election, for parties to the right of the Likud. Netanyahu’s decision to merge election lists with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu probably helped Netanyahu retain the office of prime minister, but again, it tarnished his image once Lieberman was indicted. Moreover, the merger brought together two groups that did not mix very well—Russian immigrants [many still poor] and upper class capitalists. Many of the Russians did not turn out to vote in the general election since Lieberman was sidelined with legal troubles and the new combined party did not seem to speak the same language as the old Yisrael Beitenu.
Finally, Netanyahu did not run a very exciting campaign. He stressed the issue of strength — something the Israeli electorate values — but the less said about it, the more it is respected. Yesh Atid addressed economic issues or at least grievances that reflected the concerns of a significant number of people who might have once voted for Netanyahu. Lapid stressed the need to improve education and not to ‘pick’ fights with American politicians, particularly those re-elected to high office.
LAZIN: There are a lot of things that people like about Netanyahu: there has been stability in the country; in 2008, Israel didn’t crash like the U.S. and the economy held up; there has been very little terror; there is status quo and a fairly positive situation in Israel. On the negative side, nothing’s happened with the Palestinians and the peace talks; after the big crisis two years ago with demonstrations, nothing has happened to improve the lot of the middle class. So there’s a lot of frustration. He’s running a holding operation and some people want a little more.
Into that landscape came Naftali Bennett, who said, “I support Netanyahu; he’s going to be Prime Minister, to hell with the Palestinians, we don’t need a two-state solution.” Whereas, Netanyahu plays both sides — he supports a two-state solution, then supports building new settlements. Voters on the right say, “We’ve got someone much more articulate, he gives us what we want,” and they deserted Netanyahu.
Yair Lapid says the same thing: “Netanyahu will be Prime Minister; I want to be in the government.” But he also says that Israel has to renew peace talks. There are enough people on the left to support Lapid, because Netanyahu will be Prime Minister and Lapid wants peace talks. Lapid is not a left-winger and the only candidate who pushed the Palestinian issue was Tzipi Livni, who only got six seats, but Lapid would like to go back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. Most Israeli leaders, going back to 1948, have never considered the Palestinian issue an existential threat to Israel. Tzipi Livni is the exception. In a short period of time, I assume that Israel will have a Jewish minority, but a Palestinian state is not a top priority when Israel is dealing with Syria, Egypt, which is falling apart, and Iran and the bomb.
Netanyahu lost more support from the right than from the left. The right got fragmented, but it turned out that the presence of the right was over-exaggerated. If you take out the ultra-Orthodox, you have a bigger bloc on the left.
JL: Can you tell us about Yesh Atid and its leader Yair Lapid?
DIVINE: Yair Lapid is a writer and was the star of a popular TV show. He was not trained as a journalist although he would publish op-eds in Israeli newspapers. His father, Yossi [Tommy] Lapid was a journalist who became a leader of Shinui, an Israeli party that began as a liberal, centrist party focused on civil liberties. When Yossi Lapid headed the party, he turned it into a virulent anti-ultra-Orthodox movement. By contrast to his father, Yair is much less confrontational and has made it clear that he embraces the kind of Israeli culture that respects Jewish tradition. There are Orthodox rabbis on his party list, but all endorse the notion that religion should not dictate public policy. Yesh Atid is a party appealing to what Lapid calls the middle class. He has promised to follow the money and to promote policies that impose the burdens of citizenship fairly. In this sense, he has stressed that yeshiva students should not be granted lifetime exemptions from army or national service and from the need to contribute to the nation’s economy, in other words, to work. These are rather general goals and not yet translated into concrete policies, and Yair Lapid has shown some flexibility in just how these goals will be implemented. The people who voted for him seem to expect that he will address some of the economic issues raised by the protests in the summer of 2011.
When people talk or write about Yair Lapid, they mention his father and his father’s influence. But he also has a mother who is actually quite a famous and well-respected writer — novels, plays and now mysteries. She has written some fantastic historical novels. Many of her books focus on women and the importance of work for women. But she always refused to call herself a feminist or to be categorized in one way or another. Perhaps, that can be said of her son as well regarding his political positions.
JL: Now that the voting is over and the votes counted – what next?
LAZIN: The previous government continues to operate until a new one is formed and negotiations play out. The process is that President Shimon Peres talks with all the different parties that ran and won seats and asks who they prefer to form the government. Last time around, [opposition leader] Tzipi Livni had more votes than Netanyahu but when the president interviewed all the parties, they chose Netanyahu. Peres has not yet called Netanyahu in this time, but he most likely will do so.
Netanyahu has two weeks or a month to form a government and if he doesn’t succeed, he can ask for a two-week extension. If he still doesn’t succeed, Peres will ask someone else or there will be another election, which is unlikely.
Netanyahu will probably form the government because many people want him. Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett ran on a platform that they want to be in a government with Netanyahu. Bennett and Lapid both stand committed to the “sharing the burden” universal military draft.
There’s a way-out chance that Lapid could set up a government if he brings in the Arabs and Shas, but he made it clear that he doesn’t want to set up a government with MK Hanin Zuabi and has said that he wouldn’t block Netanyahu. So the only person setting up a government will be Netanyahu.
Once he gets the call, he has some tough negotiating ahead. The real politics in Israel isn’t in the election but rather in setting up the government. There is a coalition agreement that provides the guiding principles of the coalition. Every party that gets a ministry usually runs it in the interest of his or her own party, but they can’t violate the coalition agreement.
JL: Can we expect Yesh Atid to be part of a coalition government?
DIVINE: I expect Yesh Atid to be part of the coalition because it is the second largest party in the Knesset and because Lapid knows that the only way he can build his party and his political reputation is if he can produce some policy achievements.
JL: The parties that are being talked about as part of a coalition have in many areas disparate views. Will it be hard for Netanyahu to govern with so many opposing viewpoints?
DIVINE: Governing in Israel is not for the fainthearted or weak willed. It is a tough activity. I imagine that it may be difficult for Netanyahu to put together his coalition, but when he does, it may be easier than some pundits believe for them to remain in office. Both Lapid and Bennett, of the Bayit Yehudi Party, want to be able to shape domestic policies. While they have different views of the settlements and whether to engage in discussions with the Palestinians for an end to the conflict and the establishment of two states, they are both reasonably doubtful that any discussions or proposals would advance an agreement. So, although they disagree about the ‘two-states for two-people’ idea, they do seem to agree that whatever any Israeli government proposes in terms of borders, no Palestinian can accept and whatever the Palestinians demand, no Israeli government can accept. So Bennett may be willing to sit in a government that talks to the Palestinians about peace.
JL: What does all this mean for the religious parties?
DIVINE: Netanyahu will be reluctant to form a coalition without Shas or United Torah. [Bayit Yehudi is a version of the former Religious Zionist Party, the NRP] But Netanyahu seems comfortable with the ultra-Orthodox. Lapid, however, may not want to join a coalition with Shas — certainly many of his supporters hate Shas. But a Shas that is more flexible may be useful particularly if new policies will be set to erode funds to ultra-Orthodox schools and institutions. There is no doubt that the ultra-Othodox are concerned by the outcome of the election.
LAZIN: Netanyahu’s whole party is fragmented and he has an element of extreme right-wingers from the settler movement. He got 77 percent of the vote in January 2012 when Likud decided who would head the party. This wasn’t a big victory for Netanyahu because within his party, 23 percent supported Moshe Feiglin, head of the Manhigut Yehudit [Jewish Leadership] faction of Likud, who opposes a two-state solution and supports annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu is concerned that if he brings in Naftali Bennett, he will bring in more of these people. Yediot Ahronot journalist Nachum Barnea wrote that, in a year or two, Bennett may join Likud and run against Netanyahu to try to take over the party. Sara Netanyahu has a lot of influence on Netanyahu and doesn’t like Bennett and other people in the party.
JL: In negotiating over Bennett, will Netanyahu bring in Shas?
LAZIN: The question is, will Shas break with the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties? United Torah Judaism has seven seats, they are non-Chasidic Orthodox, Eastern European in origin, and much more religiously extreme than Shas. Shas has 11 seats and is much more “patriotic” than United Torah Judaism. Shas’s leader, Rabbi Yosef Ovadiah, has come out saying that if you draft all ultra-Orthodox men, we’ll leave the country en masse. But of course they won’t. On the other hand, Shas has toyed with the idea of national service for ultra-Orthodox men and could probably live with it. They’re not as anti-state as other ultra-Orthodox groups.
Shas has one of the largest school systems in the country, which is supported by the government and gets more money per pupil than the public school system.
Like Hamas, they provide services for poor people. For example, a Shas kindergarten runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and serves meals; a public kindergarten goes from 8 a.m. to noon and doesn’t serve meals. Shas is worried about its institutions and if they’re out of the government, they could lose everything.
Shas would support a peace treaty, not that they’re committed to making peace with the Palestinians, but Ovadia Yosef has come out over the last few years with the comment that he supports peace, that life is more important than land.
JL: Could Netanyahu sidestep the religious parties by bringing in others?
LAZIN: Netanyahu could take Likud and Yesh Atid – which is close to 50 seats – and bring in Tzipi Livni with six seats and Kadima with two, and maybe Labor would join. The problem he would have is that his own party might not go along with it because it’s split. If he brings in Lapid and Bennett, one will be defense minister; but Netanyahu doesn’t trust Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon from his own party. Former Likud Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz of Kadima has two seats and he wants to be defense minister. So, if Mofaz joins, he will be defense minister. Lapid and Bennett support Netanyahu, one from the right and the other from the center/left, whereas Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yacimovich said that they don’t want to be in the government and won’t support Netanyahu.
The wild card is that Avigdor Liberman could pull out of Likud and he has 11 of the 31 seats won by the party. But he is under indictment, and the charges are more serious than originally thought.
JL: Do you think Pres. Obama’s now infamous remark, stating that Israelis don’t understand what’s in their own best interests, had any influence on the vote?
DIVINE: Hard to know if it had influence. Israelis seem not to like Netanyahu’s seeming involvement in America’s election and his embrace of Romney, particularly since the latter lost the election. Netanyahu has been accused of engaging in gimmicks that may be clever but do not serve Israel’s interests.