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Shira Herzog (Deborah Baic)
Shira Herzog (Deborah Baic)

Shira Herzog

An election blurs Israel’s left-right divide Add to ...

After Tuesday’s election, Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer “King Bibi” – as Time magazine crowned him last year. His Likud-Beitenu party still has a plurality of Knesset seats and will form the next government, but the Prime Minister and the right have lost their unchallenged grip on Israel’s political map. Led by centrist Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party was formed a year ago, a crop of new faces will dominate the Knesset and cabinet. And if these novices’ political skills extend beyond their campaign success, this election could end up being the first step in a long-term shift in Israel’s political landscape.

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The campaign and election results exposed latent undercurrents affecting Israeli society since the middle-class protest that swept the country in the summer of 2011. The protest seemed to be dormant since then, but its influence permeated the “how,” “what” and “who” of this campaign. The protest’s young, educated leaders used technology to mobilize hundreds of thousands across the country, making the campaign of 2013 Israel’s first real social media election. Most campaign headquarters paid far closer attention to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter than to television coverage of their candidates.

The protest focused on housing prices, taxation and the unequal burden imposed on the majority – who serve in the army, work and pay taxes – versus ultra-orthodox men, who are exempt from military service and whose families receive large welfare benefits. Protest leaders never mentioned the Palestinian issue or the cost of Israeli construction and incentives for those living in West Bank settlements.

For the most part, the campaign mirrored this pattern. Only the Meretz party on the left and Tzipi Livni’s centre-left Hatnua (12 seats combined) made a deal with the Palestinians a priority. (Even Israel’s marginalized Arab parties spoke more about domestic issues this time.) Mr. Netanyahu spoke generally of the need for a strong leader. Mr. Lapid spoke vaguely of the need for talks. And Labour’s Shelly Yachimovich declared the issue irrelevant at present. On the right, another attractive political novice, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, didn’t hide his plan for annexing a majority of the West Bank but ran on a domestic agenda aimed at attracting religious and secular Israelis alike.

The 2011 protest was marked by fatigue with old-style politics and cynicism toward promises few believed would be honoured. When it came to voting, young Israelis came out (overall turnout was 66.6 per cent, almost two percentage points higher than in 2009) and voted for the three newcomers – Mr. Lapid, Mr. Bennett and Ms. Yachimovich (a new party leader, although a Knesset member for seven years) and their lists of fresh candidates. The results are impressive: Of 120 Knesset members, more than 50 were ousted and more than 40 first-timers got in. Many of the new parliamentarians are women; many boast successful records in civil-society organizations, NGOs, business and media.

Before Tuesday, a strengthened Israeli right seemed a foregone conclusion. But that’s not what the public wanted. It didn’t veer to the left but placed Mr. Lapid firmly in the centre as the linchpin of the next government. For now, at least, in yet another echo of the summer of 2011, the right-left divide is blurred. No one’s rushing to act on the peace front, and the critical issue of Iran will be debated across party lines.

On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu identified the core domestic issues facing the new government: affordable housing, a more equitable sharing of the burden of military service, electoral reform. These come straight out of Mr. Lapid’s platform and, if they remain priorities, will determine the choice of coalition partners. This may lead to strange bedfellows. For example, Mr. Lapid and Mr. Bennett can agree on an arrangement for drafting ultra-orthodox men, yet are far apart on the Palestinian issue. But if they compromise enough to be inside the tent together, Mr. Netanyahu will be spared the pressure of what he fears most: a narrow, right-wing, ultra-religious cabinet and a more nationalist Likud caucus than in the past.

Still, caution is prudent: Israeli centrist parties tend to be short-lived. (In the most recent example, Kadima won 29 seats in 2009 but barely made the two-seat minimum this time. Many of its disillusioned voters moved to Mr. Lapid.) Expectations of Mr. Lapid are high if not excessive. Even though Mr. Netanyahu’s position has been weakened, the Prime Minister is a shrewd and seasoned political tactician who may manipulate and outsmart his imposed political partner.

These are early days. Coalition negotiations will be protracted, and a new government may be weeks away. The spin machines are talking about a broad government, and pundits already predict that its inevitable incompatibilities will lead to another round of elections within two years. In the meantime, how the game is played by the new people will determine if election 2013 was really about change.

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