So, based on the exit polls, here’s what resulted from the Israeli elections:
- Likud-Beiteinu (“Likud-Our Home,” the merger of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu) dropped from 42 to 31 seats. However, Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home,” the merger of the traditional National Religious Party and National Union) gained 7 seats, going from 5 to 12. And the ultra-orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) also gained 2 seats, going from 16 to 18 seats between them. So the right-religious bloc as a whole is projected to drop two seats, from 63 to 61. When the military votes are fully counted, this will probably go up by a seat or two, for basically no net change. (The ultra-rightist Oztma L’yisrael (“Strength For Israel”) is projected to drop from 2 seats to none, but nobody considered them plausible coalition partners for anybody, so I’m not counting them in the right-religious bloc.)
- A brand new centrist party, Yesh Atid (“There Is A Future”), founded by a former TV journalist, won 19 seats, rocketing to the largest faction in the Knesset. However, the previous brand new centrist party, Kadima (“Forward”), which held 21 seats in the last Knesset, was wiped out. (And it’s worth noting that the last election, which saw the creation of Kadima, wiped out the previous brand new centrist party, Shinui (“Change”), which was headed by the father of Yair Lapid, founder of Yesh Atid.)
- Labor gained 9 seats, going from 8 to 17. However, the Independence Party, a breakaway party splintered from Labor by former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which held 5 seats, was wiped out. Labor’s leader, Shelly Yacimovich, ran a campaign that strove mightily not to mention anything about peacemaking, and hinted broadly that she was comfortable with Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinians, so in security terms Labor should be considered centrist rather than on the left. Counting it as part of the center bloc, the grouping as a whole gained 2 seats, going from 34 to 36.
- Two Zionist parties ran explicitly on achieving a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians: Meretz, the traditional social-democratic and pro-peace party, and Hatnuah (“The Movement”), a liberal breakaway faction from Kadima founded by former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. Hatnuah is projected to retain its 7 seats, while Meretz is projected to grow from 3 to 6 or 7 seats. The Arab parties (including Hadash, which is not an ethnic party but is non-Zionist in orientation), who are generally understood not to be acceptable coalition partners, are projected to lose 2 seats, largely because of low turnout in the Arab sector.
What does it all mean? Well, mostly it means that Netanyahu will either be completely beholden to parties to his right (if he forms a narrow right-religious coalition), which he doesn’t want, or he has to lure Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, the bright new centrist star, into coalition.
How hard will that be? Based on past experience, including that of Lapid’s father when he ran the Shinui (“Change”) party, not terribly hard at all.
Here’s the thing about “centrist” Israeli parties: they are always very popular when they first appear, and they never last. They are popular when they first appear because they promise to square the circle that everybody wants squared. They are in favor of a negotiated peace—but on terms that are broadly popular among Israeli Jews and that are basically non-starters with the Palestinians. The same is true in domestic matters. They favor liberalization (in a European sense) of the economy—and they favor strengthening the social safety net. They are in favor of a renegotiation of relations between the state and the ultra-Orthodox—permitting civil marriage, opening up the rabbinate, drafting yeshivah students—but to be part of the government they have to agree to sit with religious parties who are resolutely opposed to these very things. And they have to join the government, or they can’t accomplish anything. And if they sit in opposition, then aren’t they just another left-wing party?
Centrism in Israel always presents itself as the voice of hope. But it is really the voice of despair—and can’t you hear the despair in the very name of the latest centrist phenomenon? “There Is A Future”—forget what that future might bring, call us brave and hopeful simply for asserting that there is one.
Personally, I am reasonably confident that there is a future for Israel, the character of which remains to be determined.
For Yair Lapid’s party? Not so much.