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Israel Tilts Away from the Right After Elections, Netanyahu's Power Wanes

Netanyahu has confirmed his legacy as a weak-willed leader, a venal politician and a poor strategist.

An Israeli election advertisement for Yair Lapid.
Photo Credit: Ranbar/Wikimedia Commons


Well, here it is, the day after. The  Israeli elections are over, but the form of the next government is not at all clear. Most likely, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu party will form a government with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party being the main partner. This is by far the most likely scenario, though others possibilities exist, even a million-to-one long shot that Lapid could form a government. Labor is likely to be leading the opposition, unless Lapid surprises everyone and stays out of a Netanyahu-led government.

The new Knesset will be somewhat less tilted to the right than the last one, but this is not likely to make a big difference in terms of Israel’s approach to the Palestinians. Indeed, in some ways, it might serve Netanyahu to have a friendlier face in Lapid to cover policies that might be slightly different rhetorically but essentially the same on the ground. More than anything else, the shift in government is going to be felt domestically, in terms of greater attention to civic and economic issues. Indeed, no Israeli election in my memory compares to this one for the dominance of domestic over security issues.

Given that there’s still more to see before the full ramifications of the election are known, I’ll engage here with a few winners and losers.

The Winners

Yair Lapid: Lapid comes out of this as a major power broker…for now. I suspect Bibi will try to convince him to take the Finance portfolio, because the looming budget cuts are very likely to undermine whoever takes that job. If Lapid has any sense, he will stay away from this job. Bibi might decide to make him Foreign Minister, allowing Lapid’s much more charming visage to replace both last term’s technical Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman (who had to quit when he was indicted) and the de facto one, a combination of Ehud Barak and Netanyahu. The idea is to improve Israel’s face in the international arena and stem of the criticism Israel has been facing, especially from Europe. Long-term, parties like Lapid’s, which are essentially cults of personality, tend to have a short shelf life. And Lapid doesn’t have much of a political program, as he wisely stuck to very broad, general and populist statements in his campaign. But for now, Lapid holds the key to Bibi’s ability to form a coalition, although it is possible for Bibi to form a government without him. Lapid had been doing well in polls and well exceeded those projections, so as of today, he is in really good shape.

Naftali Bennett/HaBayit HaYehudi: Many polls projected Bennett with the number of seats that Lapid got, so some see the 11 seats HaBayit HaYehudi won as a disappointment. But the party had all of three seats in the previous Knesset, and Bennett has put the national religious camp, as a distinct unit in the Israeli polity, back on the map. Bennett can now choose between a secondary role in the government or leading the rightward tug on Israel from outside the government. That’s not a bad place for him to be, long term. Bibi rebuilt Likud from that position after it was devastated by Ariel Sharon’s formation of Kadima nearly a decade ago. Either way, Bennett remains able to build himself into  the face of the Israeli right for years to come.

Meretz: The only Zionist party that could remotely be called truly left-wing doubled its presence in the Knesset, from three seats to six. That’s the most seats it has won since the 1999 election. It’s still not a very influential party, but Zehava Gal-On has it back on track as the voice of the Jewish left, which has been terribly muted in Israel. Building on this momentum is likely to be just as difficult for Gal-On as halting Meretz’s downward spiral was. But she’s the  best leader they’ve had in a long time, maybe ever. She is articulating a strong left-wing point of view, instead of mealy-mouthed political mumbo-jumbo, and that is bringing back leftist voters.

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