Netanyahu’s election setback

Patrick Martin reports: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earned the right in Tuesday’s Israeli election to be asked to try to form the country’s next government, but whether he will succeed or not is up to a neophyte politician named Yair Lapid, whose party’s second-place finish has stunned the country.

Riding a wave of protest over such issues as the cost of housing and the privilege given Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Haredim to avoid the military draft, Mr. Lapid, a popular former broadcast journalist, made these two concerns the centrepiece of his campaign.

Another first-time politician, Naftali Bennett, argued for much the same things, but Mr. Bennett, leader of a national religious party known as the Jewish Home, also championed the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the abandonment of the idea of a Palestinian state – a position too extreme, perhaps, for many Israelis.

Whatever this election was about, it wasn’t about making peace with the Palestinians, nor about Israel’s relations with Arab states in the region. It was about what Israelis wanted in their daily lives.

The outcome of Tuesday’s vote, however, leaves Mr. Netanyahu with one of two choices, both with broader, regional implications. Either he tries to govern with a paper-thin majority of right wing and ultra-Orthodox parties (in which case he will have to adopt an even more confrontational approach to Palestinian statehood as demanded by Mr. Bennett), or he will reach out to the centrist Mr. Lapid to form a broader coalition.

Based on the phone call he made to Mr. Lapid late Tuesday night, he appears to have chosen the latter approach.

What remains to be seen now is whether the Prime Minister will jettison the ultra-Orthodox and their privileges from his coalition – or leave Mr. Bennett and his pro-settlement views out of a new government. The choice may be made for him by Mr. Lapid.

In either scenario, as long as Mr. Netanyahu is Prime Minister, Israel’s policy toward Iran won’t change.

For Mr. Netanyahu, the man who was assumed to be the once and future prime minister, the results are a stunning setback.

An editorial in Haaretz said: Israelis awaken this morning to a day of uncertainty. The voting is over, but the election is not. The soldiers’ votes, disqualified votes, the electoral threshold − all of these will still move the numbers this way or that. But to learn some lessons, no waiting is necessary.

Israel on Tuesday expressed no confidence in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After four years at the country’s helm, together with his natural partner, MK Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu lost about a quarter of his strength despite − or perhaps because of − the merger with Lieberman. Netanyahu, Israelis said on Tuesday, has failed. He has failed in the political sphere, the foreign policy sphere and the socioeconomic sphere.

His failure is a failure of leadership, which will continue to cast a pall over us if he survives in power. Netanyahu plunged from Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu’s 42 MKs to about 30 because the Israeli public felt that his government had not understood the deeper significance of the protests of the summer of 2011.

Reuters reports: Palestinians reacted warily to the outcome of the poll, voicing doubts it would produce a government more willing to compromise for peace, even if it included centrist parties.

An editorial in the Ramallah-based Al-Quds daily said such parties would provide a “cosmetic decoration” for a Netanyahu-led government that would mislead world public opinion without halting a drive to expand Jewish settlement on occupied land.

Jeffrey Goldberg writes: A Netanyahu-Bennett-Lapid coalition would be far more likely to take bold action against another of Israel’s threats, the rise of the ultra-Orthodox, than to take on the peace process. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Haredi men don’t serve in the army and are on the public dole so that they can pursue full-time religious studies. And Haredi political parties are becoming more radical (ayatollah-like, in some ways), demanding sex segregation on public buses and generally trying to erase the line dividing synagogue from state. Lapid’s popularity is derived in large part from his stalwart stance against the privileges accrued by the ultra-Orthodox.

Lev Grinberg says: this election revolved around whiteness.

That was precisely the criticism leveled at the leadership of the Rothschild Boulevard protesters in the summer of 2011: its whiteness, its dominance, its failure to represent the periphery and its desire to preserve the power of the middle class — that is, the secular Ashkenazim.

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