Israelis are still digesting the results of yesterday’s national elections, with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who fared much worse than anticipated, still likely to be tapped to form the next government. The definitive tally, to be announced tomorrow, could bump a few parties up or down by one of the hundred and twenty total parliamentary seats up for grabs. Netanyahu, who will not wait for that final announcement, is already scrambling to forge a new coalition government comprised of at least a simple majority of 61.
The person who will ultimately decide the fate and composition of Israel’s next government is Yair Lapid, a political newcomer and former newsman, who heads the new party Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”). Lapid emerged as the big surprise yesterday with his exceptionally strong showing in which he came in with a second place tally of nineteen parliamentary seats. That number may not seem overwhelming, but it is significant, given that Netanyahu, who only won because he merged his Likud party with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, secured just thirty-one seats total.
Lapid is the man of the hour who will play a key role in the rough and tumble political horse-trading that will surround Israel’s upcoming coalition formation period. Whether Lapid joins Netanyahu’s government or opts to stay in the opposition will largely determine whether or not Israel will be led by a narrow right-wing coalition aligned with Israel’s religious parties or a broader coalition whose center of gravity is more oriented towards the center.
Yesh Atid is the latest of a series of “third parties” that have risen to prominence in the last thirty years, hailing from neither Labor nor Likud (parties that trace their lineage to the pre-state era). Like many of these centrist political predecessors—from Yigal Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change in 1977 to Shinui, headed by Lapid’s father, Tommy—Yesh Atid came to the fore as a fresh face on the secular Zionist landscape.
Lapid campaigned on a secular “middle-class first” social agenda, calling on Israel’s ultra-orthodox population to integrate into national life and share the burden of military service. Yesh Atid largely avoided many key issues, such as the peace process, during his campaign and party formation. While Lapid is basking in his new surprise success, he would also be wise to worry about his longer term prospects if he wishes to realize his goal of eventually becoming Israel’s prime minister.
Third parties in Israel have a tendency to see their meteoric rise quickly burn out like a supernova. Indeed, secular Zionist third parties rarely survive beyond one or two electoral cycles in Israeli politics. Yadin’s party, for example, quickly catapulted to prominence when it won fifteen seats in 1977, but was extinct by the time of the next Israeli elections. Such third parties tend to quickly see their novelty fade as they become part of the quickly established landscape sullied by the give and take of daily politics. Their single focus on change quickly becomes a liability when it is clear they lack a comprehensive identity or widespread constituency.
Take the example of Kadima, the party that actually earned the most seats (28) in the previous 2009 election, but was then unable to forge a coalition government. Yesterday, Kadima, now under Shaul Mofaz, barely secured its existence, earning just enough votes to allow it to sit in the next Knesset. Kadima was originally formed around a single candidate—Ariel Sharon—to accomplish a single objective: withdraw Israel from Gaza and perhaps the West Bank. Kadima never successfully took root in the Israeli landscape, however, failing to forge a clear and coherent ideology on the broad range of issues confronting Israel.
An effort to remake Kadima as a new third party in the guise of Tzipi Livni’s Ha’tnua (“The movement”) party similarly fared poorly yesterday. Livni had led Kadima to victory in Israel’s last election in 2009. After she was unable to put together a majority coalition, the premiership went to Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu, which had come in second. Livni never recovered politically afterwards, and the six seats her new party won yesterday limits the chances that she will play a prominent role in Netanyahu’s next government, something that would have been more likely had she won ten or more seats.
One leader who managed to evade the pitfalls of most Israeli third parties is Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman had earlier broken from Likud to form the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Its agenda had been centered on the secular and right-wing oriented world-view of Israel’s substantial Russian-speaking population. As that population has integrated into the Israeli mainstream, Lieberman wisely recognized that his niche party may be headed the way of other third parties. Hence, he forged a reunion last October with his original party, the Likud, for the purposes of yesterday’s election. That move seems to have saved Lieberman, and ultimately Netanyahu politically.
Israel’s political landscape has once again been shaken by its hyper-democracy. Yair Lapid has emerged as the new star who will be instrumental in determining Israel’s upcoming political future. Yet he will have to flesh out his positions significantly and ably navigate the shark-infested waters of Israeli politics if he wishes to be more than a one or two-term leading political player.