Results push Prime Minister Netanyahu on the defensive

Israel’s young middle class voters have asserted themselves by positioning to advantage a centrist party and a charismatic leader, who is set to shape the national agenda — earlier dominated by aging politicians from the Right and the Left.

Contrary to predictions by pollsters, ahead of Tuesday’s vigorously contested elections, the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a future) party, led by former television presenter, Yair Lapid, won 19 seats in the 120-member Knesset (Parliament). In the convoluted arithmetic of government formation, where the mandate has been divided among several parties that range from the Left and the ultra-Right, Yesh Atid’s tally is impressive. With 99 per cent of the ballots counted, the religious Right and the Centre-Left have each managed 60 seats, firmly pitching Mr. Lapid as the preeminent king- maker.

The astonishing results, which many had earlier predicted would strongly go the right-wing’s way, have pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud- Yisrael Beitenu alliance, on the defensive. From 42 in the outgoing Knesset, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition has garnered 31 seats — a precipitous drop, with far-reaching implications. Analysts still see him as Israel’s Prime Minister for a third term, but most agree that forced into dependence on parties pulling in different directions that belong to the Centre and the ultra-Right, he risks leading an inherently dysfunctional government. Israel’s punditry is already predicting another election not very far down the road.

Middle-class discontent

Mr. Lapid appears to have made skilful political capital out of seething middle class discontent, which had tellingly exploded in the past. In 2011, young educated middle class Israelis — burdened by rising house rents, inflation and decline in living standards — had in cascading protests thronged Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. Occupants of the tented city that had emerged in Israel’s commercial capital were demanding the reworking of their social contract with a government that still boasted of high growth rates and a booming economy, but, which seemed to have lost touch with most ordinary Israelis.

As results began to pour in, Yesh Atid’s supporters remained firmly riveted to the concerns of the perceptively pained middle class. Yifat Kariv of the party told YNet News: “There is a feeling that the country has returned to our hands — to the hands of the silent majority of the middle class.”

In his lively address late into the night, Mr. Lapid, to thunderous applause, called for the formation of a new governing coalition in Israel — with moderates from the Right and the Left joining a centrist nucleus. “I urge the senior members of the political system to form as broad a government as possible that would unite the moderate forces from the Left and Right, so that we will be able to bring about real change in the State of Israel,” said Mr. Lapid.

The telegenic former presenter has also been the star advocate for reforming a law that allows ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students to defer their participation in military service — a call that resonated well with his young liberal supporters who demand a fairer distribution of responsibility.

Well aware that they are playing with a weaker hand, leaders of the Likud-Beitenu are already responding to Mr. Lapid’s agenda setting platform. “The young public did not vote for us at all,” observed Likud’s Silvan Shalom in a conversation with Army Radio.

In a message posted on his Facebook page, Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, an established hawk, not well-known for deeper introspection, nevertheless conceded that elections “force the next government to focus on internal matters, and mainly equal share of the burden, changing the form of government and affordable housing”.

His dovish call that “if the Palestinians show they are willing to meet and restart negotiations we would be happy to meet with them, with no preconditions” has also raised plenty of eyebrows.

Left’s response

In view of Yesh Atid’s spectacular success, the response of the Centre-Left parties has been varied and nuanced. As he gazed into his crystal ball, Zahava Gal-On of the leftist Meretz party saw in Mr. Lapid’s “wonderful achievement”, an opportunity “to give a promise to the public in Israel that the extreme right-wing government will be replaced”. On the contrary, the Labour party, reduced to third position with 15 seats, had turned inwards, pointing at the Yesh Atid for the shrinkage in its political space. “[Mr.] Yair Lapid took the whole kitty, not only from the Labour Party but also from all the parties.

His votes, after all, did not fall out of the sky,” said Labour Party law maker, Eitan Cabel, in an interview with Army Radio.

The churning within Israel, marked by a centrist-moderate riposte during elections, seemed to have undermined the ultra-nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) party, which has won 11 seats, but was expected to do much better ahead of the polls.

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