The "King of Israel" has his wings clipped

Roy Isacowitz on the significance of Israel's election results

Election special: More of the same, but a little better

Israeli elections are all about arithmetic. The country's proportional representation system ensures that there will always be a plethora of parties and that the government will invariably be a carefully-calculated coalition. Yesterday's election followed the established pattern. It is likely to take several weeks and the usual mind-boggling political acrobatics before the next government is formed.

It is too early to make any firm predictions about the likely coalition, other than to say that Bibi Netanyahu remains the best bet for premier and that the numbers seem to rule out an undiluted right-wing government. Though the former is as welcome as cancer, the latter is a relief for anyone who believes in sanity and accommodation with the Palestinians. Not that either is guaranteed, mind you, but the odds are better than they were two days ago.

Parts of the media and spokespeople for the two big winners in the election - There is a Future in the fuzzy center and the ultra-right Jewish Home - are describing the elections are a turning-point; the start of a new era and so on. I think they're getting carried away by their own rhetoric. The elections reaffirmed what we have known for a long time: the nation is split down the middle, most Israelis don't have a strong political/ideological allegiance, there is a paucity of leadership amongst our politicians and the Israeli voter is a sucker for anyone new entering politics and chanting the slogan "change."

This time around, the white knight is Yair Lapid, a cardboard media celebrity with oily hair (though he would probably describe it as moussed) and far less brain power than he gives himself credit for. He joins a long line of wannabees, from Yigal Yadin in 1977 to Tommy Lapid (Yair's father) a decade ago. What they all have in common is that they entered politics with a fanfare, soaked up many of the floating votes looking for a tropical island, spent time in government without leaving any mark and then disappeared into the ether. Not one of the center parties that were going to change our lives still exists.

Time will tell whether Yair Lapid is any more successful than his predecessors. There's little question that he will be a key player in the next coalition and that his 19 seats, mainly secular and centrist, will moderate the budding neo-fascism of Netanyahu's Israel Our Home bloc. That in itself is welcome. And if he manages to prevent the mad-dog prime minister from attacking Iran, his contribution to the country will be commemorated in song. Conceivably, he could turn into a leader of the Arnold Schwarzenegger variety, a macho narcissist who became a celebrity by peddling shlock to the masses (in Lapid's case, kitsch journalism) and succeeded in turning it into a political career.

But I have my doubts whether he has what it takes to solve Israel's existential problems, primarily the dispute with the Palestinians - or, indeed, if he even wants to. As I wrote last week, Lapid is one of the new generation of post-occupation politicians. He pays lip-service to the need for peace, but doesn't give it the same priority as getting the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army, say, or lowering housing prices. In that, he is little different from the other big winner of the night, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, whose party won 11 seats. Whatever their differences, both men regard the occupation as more background noise than a problem in urgent need of resolution.

The big losers - leaving aside the unlamented Kadima Party, which went from 28 seats in the previous Knesset to two seats now - are Netanyahu and his erstwhile buddy Avigdor Lieberman, whose combined total dropped from 42 seats to 31. Their oh-so-clever maneuver of combining forces before the election crashed in flames, with three-quarters of the electorate rejecting the policies of stasis and stagnation that the two of them have been responsible for over the past four years. Ornery as ever, the Israeli voter was apparently unimpressed by TIME magazine's coronation of Bibi as King of Israel - unless it was talking of the unclothed variety.

Bibi is likely to retain the premiership, but his wings have been clipped. He won't be able to lord it over the next coalition as he did the previous. Lapid, with the election wind behind his back, is likely to be a lot less vulnerable to Bibi's intimidation than the current coalition partners. And spare a thought for Lieberman, the Stalinesque strongman of previous elections, who has been totally eclipsed by the upstarts. I wouldn't be surprised if both Lieberman and his party of Russian émigrés are no longer on the political scene by the next elections.

All in all, it was an election that may have slowed the currents pulling rightwards and that increased the presence of the center, though it still remains fragmented and vague. It was also kind to the anti-occupation forces, though in a minor, off-handed sort of way. We are a lot more likely to see lower housing prices than peace in the near future. Nothing to celebrate, but neither was it the disaster that it might have been. Just another Israeli election.

This article first appeared in the Kibbitzer blog.

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