News / Middle East

Israel’s Yair Lapid: A Voice for Change or Same Old Same Old?

Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid party gives a statement outside his home in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid party gives a statement outside his home in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Cecily Hilleary
When the final vote was tallied in Israel's election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s Likud-Beitenu Party won only 31 seats, far fewer than had been expected. Another party expected to do well, the religious-nationalist Bayit Yehudi Party led by Naftali Bennett, clinched 12 seats.  But the big surprise was the 19-seat win by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, twice what polls predicted. His supporters – and many analysts -- say he is a breath of fresh political air. But others are skeptical.
 
Roots
 
Though some call him a neophyte, Lapid is no stranger to politics. His father, Josef Lapid, was a Holocaust survivor from the former Yugoslavia who came to Israel in 1948.  For years a prominent journalist, the elder Lapid ended up forming his own political party and later joined the government of former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
 
Like his father, the Yair Lapid began his career as a reporter and talk show host.  He also wrote columns in Israeli newspapers. He is internet savvy and uses social media like Facebook to deliver his political message that, among other things, calls for affordable housing, new laws to fight corruption, better education and a national constitution, which he believes will help settle religious and state tensions. 
 
That message appears to have helped drive a record turnout of more than 66 percent of Israeli voters.
 
Carlo Strenger is a political commentator and professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University. “All of us, and that includes me, we underestimated the depth of the impact of the social protest movement in the summer of 2011,” he said. “It did something to make Israelis aware that they can actually take their destiny in their own hands; that they can have an impact on politics and its impotent passivity. There is a feeling, ‘We can actually be talking about our destiny.’”
 
David Horovitz, the founding editor of the online publication, The Times of Israel, says Lapid’s supporters registered “a protest vote.”  
 
“The key focus wasn’t the Palestinians or Iran. It was governance and the economy, although those other issues play into the mix.There are going to be at least 50 new faces in the 120-seat parliament, and I think that underlines that Israelis wanted something fresh, something new,” Horovitz said. 
 
“There is nobody on that 19-strong [Yesh Atid candidate] slate who has sat in parliament before, and that’s why he chose them.  He’s got rabbis. He’s got Ethiopian-born educators.  He’s got a very, very nice mix, and I would trust his mix of quite experienced people in journalism, in local government and political activism. And he’s said that his priority will be to stick up for the middle class, to try and build a government for as wide a consensus as possible, to seek a coalition of moderates.” 
 
Coalition Building
 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Jan. 20, 2013.Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Jan. 20, 2013.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Jan. 20, 2013.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Jan. 20, 2013.
Netanyahu must now go about forming his new governing coalition and to do so he will need to gain the majority of 120 seats in the Knesset. But will the prime minister turn to his right or left?
 
“Netanyahu is not going to go for a government that he has formed only with center-left parties,” Strenger said. “First of all because he himself is much more right-leaning, and even if he wanted to, he’d have trouble doing so because his party electorate is even more to the right than he is.”
 
Alternatively, Netanyahu has the option of turning rightward, says the Times of Israel’s Horovitz.  
 
“He can just about, probably cobble together a narrow, right-wing and orthodox coalition,” Horovitz said, “but he really doesn’t want to. He will want the new star, Yair Lapid…in the government with him. But Lapid comes at a price.”

In his victory speech last Wednesday, Netanyahu said his first priority is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But he also promised to reduce the cost of living and housing in Israel and to “increase equality” in army service—two issues where he shares common ground with Lapid.

Since 1948, haredi (ultra-orthodox) men are allowed to defer military service as long as they study full-time in yeshivas (religious seminaries). Many marry and have several children while still in yeshiva, which gives them permanent military deferment status.

For his part, Lapid says he will only join a government that is interested in changing the draft law to force everyone to serve in the military. He also said he would not join any government that was not interested in restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.
 
If Netanyahu were to give in on the hot-button issues of the military draft and the Palestinians, he would most certainly face the ire of the political right. Though Naftali Bennett shares Lapid’s support of a universal draft, he does not support a two-state solution with the Palestinians and, rather, would like to annex the entire West Bank.  Meanwhile, orthodox religious parties to the right of Likud-Beitenu would firmly oppose both.
 
Horovitz believes Lapid will attempt to drive a hard bargain with the Likud leader. 
 
“There are people saying he should insist on a rotation of the prime ministership with Netanyahu,” Horovitz said. “So it’s going to be a very interesting process of negotiations and it may not be quick. And it is conceivable, I suppose, that it might not even be successful.”
 
Nothing New Here
 
Dr. Josef Olmert is an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina and former Israeli political insider who knows the issues and the players. He cautions that while Likud may have lost votes, Lapid’s strong showing is not a “win” for the left.
 
Dr. Josef OlmertDr. Josef Olmert
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Dr. Josef Olmert
Dr. Josef Olmert
“Yes, Lapid is in favor of a two-state solution, but we need to understand that people who say so include also Mr. Netanyahu. At least formally he adheres to the principle of a two-state solution, as he said in his famous speech in Bar-Ilan University in 2009. If you ask me, does he believe in that, I would say, ‘No.’”
 
If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel's security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state
    Olmert says many people claim to believe in a two-state solution, but usually with certain conditions. 
 
“When you look at the conditions of Yair Lapid, you can see that this is his ideology—most of the territories to be part of a Palestinian state, but not all of them; most blocs of [Jewish] settlements to remain under Israeli control; Jerusalem is not to be divided, and so on,” Olmert said.
 
In fact, Lapid outlined his vision for peace with the Palestinians in a speech last October at Ariel University: “We’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with,” he told his audience. 
 
He called for a freeze on new settlements, but not giving up existing settlement blocs of Ariel, Gush Etzion and Ma'aleh Adumim, which he believes should remain within the State of Israel. 
 
Lapid also opposes a shared Jerusalem, and also says he would like to expand Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile system.  
 
In contrast to Netanyahu, Lapid says he opposes a military strike on Iran, which he explains would only drive Iran further into developing nuclear capability.  Instead, he calls for increasing sanctions and ultimately bringing about the fall of the ayatollahs.
 
As for relations with the United States, Lapid says they are stronger than the people in the relationship—i.e., Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. “It would help if we had a different government and if we had a different prime minister,” Lapid said. 
 
The official election results will be handed to Israeli President Shimon Peres next week, after which Knesset Members will make their recommendations for prime minister. 
 
By the looks of it, Netanyahu will likely be that man.

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