Will surprising results stop a status-quo Netanyahu-led government?

Despite the surprising weakness of the Right-ultra-Orthodox bloc, the final result of the elections, according to exit polls, is still likely to be a status-quo Netanyahu-led government. Why? Because the big winner in this election, media personality Yair Lapid, is a vapid centrist who is likely to join Netanyahu’s coalition and make little noise on policy — either on Israel-Palestine, or any other topic

Will surprising results stop a status-quo Netanyahu-led government?
Yair Lapid (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org)

The exit-poll results are in, and Noam has an excellent summary of the headline figures. A lot of the attention, as actual results pour in through the night, will be focused on the balance between the blocs. The common wisdom, based on the polls, was that the Right and the ultra-Orthodox will have something between 64-67 (of 120) seats in the Knesset – a solid majority that was supposed to strengthen Netanyahu’s hand in coalition negotiations.

According to the exit polls, that bloc is actually 61-62 seats, bringing it perilously close to losing its majority. This is a surprising result, especially in light of very low voter turnout among Israeli-Palestinian citizens, who rarely vote for the Right. Yet even if the Right and ultra-Orthodox fall to 60 or slightly below, the outcome might be disappointingly similar to what everyone assumed: a Netanyahu-led government, incorporating some centrist parties.

The basic problem is that the Jewish-Zionist parties of the “Left” or “Center” have never been willing to form a coalition with the non-Zionist Arab parties, or even form a minority coalition relying on their votes. Without the Arab parties, there is no chance that the Center-Left can form a government on its own. That automatically weakens its hand in coalition negotiations.

Furthermore, the Jewish-Zionist Center-Left is currently splintered into two major parties (Labor and Yesh Atid, with 17-19 seats each, according to exit polls) and two smaller parties (Meretz and Hatnua, with 6-7 each, according to the exits). Netanyahu can pick off parts of this bloc at his convenience.

The task is made easier by the most surprising result indicated by the exit polls: the rise of Yesh Atid to become second-largest party after Likud-Beitenu. Yesh Atid is a new party, headed by Yair Lapid, a media personality and the son of late journalist and politician Yosef Lapid, who led a similar party to similar results in elections that took place less than a decade ago. As its name suggests (it means “there is a future” in Hebrew), Lapid’s party is, literally, the personification of vapid centrism. The only glue that holds it together is the fact that its future parliamentarians were picked at the sole discretion of their founder and chairman.

Lapid himself, despite running for office (tacitly and explicitly) for almost two years now, has not distinguished himself as a clear voice on public policy. On the two most important issues facing the country – relations with the Palestinians and economic policy – Lapid has evaded taking any tough stances. Indeed, he is famously self-contradictory and vague. He is slightly more strident regarding relations between secular and religious Jews, but even here his solutions are usually mushy and ideally suited for politically convenient foot-dragging and can-kicking.

In other words, Lapid is the ideal partner in Netanyahu’s coalition. The prime minister was never too keen on basing his coalition solely on the Right and the ultra-Orthodox, even if that bloc had done better in the elections. Netanyahu has always preferred larger coalitions, where no single partner, or no single group of crazies from his own Likud, can hold the government hostage. And if there is such a partner, it is better for it to be big and clearly controlled by a person who is not inclined to make much noise or draw lines in the sand.

So Netanyahu and Lapid should get along fine. Likud-Beitenu, Habayit Hayehudi (a hard-right party much strengthened by the elections) and Yesh Atid will have a majority of seats in the Knesset, if the exit polls are correct. To increase stability (did I mention the crazies?), they include might the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, which would probably get along with Lapid just as it grudgingly accepted his father (who was much more strident on secular-religious issues than his son).

What about the Israeli-Palestinians issue? Lapid will probably be the only one in a position to pressure for change on this front. If he is so inclined, he managed to conceal it quite impressively thus far. His party is made up mostly of left-wingers (unlike the crashed-and-burned Kadima, which was half and half). However, if the Israeli-Palestinian issue matters to them, they sure had a funny way of showing it by joining Lapid’s party when almost every other option left of Likud was more promising.

It is likely that this hastily-cobbled team, with little shared background, history or values, will quickly dissolve. This is the story of all of Yesh Atid’s predecessors, occupying the spot of Jewish-Zionist secular new party (and there have been many of them, including the one headed by Lapid’s own father). However, it is unlikely to be over the Palestinian issue, and unlikely to affect public policy in any significant way.

Let’s hope for more surprises, then.