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Israeli Elections - Nevertheless Bibi?

Benyamin Netanyahu (photo: Facebook)

 It's a long way from over but there has already been a major shift in Israel's general election. Prime Minister Binyamin has suffered a major setback with his Likud-Beiteinu party dropping by 25% in its Knesset seats taking only thirty one seats. Newcomer Yair Lapid is the big winner; his 'Future' party', although expected to do well, is expected to win at least 19 seats. Lapid has now become kingmaker, unless Netanyahu wants to commit political suicide by sticking to his former ultra-orthodox parties and including the far Right Naftali Bennett. Analyst David Essing says the question is whether Netanyahu can now make an offer that Lapid will find hard to refuse and join a new Netanyahu government.

 The polls got it wrong all the way, even on election night. Israelis went to sleep after being told that Netanyahu's Right wing bloc was leading the Center-Left-Arab bloc by 62 to 58 in potential Knesset seats. However, the next morning they woke up to a different picture – a dead heat 60-60 after more than 99% of the official count. Some remaining ballots of IDF soldiers and pennitentiary inmates will be tallied within two days and they could break the tie between the two blocs. This is of critical importance, because the state President usually selects the party leader with the best prospects to forge a new coalition that can muster a 61 seat majority in the 120 member Knesset.

Yair Lapid (photo: Yair Lapid Facebook)

Netanyahu quickly realized that the Israeli political map has shifted dramatically and that is why his first telephone call was to Lapid offering him to join a new cabinet. This is where the 'art of the possible' will kick in. As things now stand Netanyahu and Lapid need each other and unlike Labor's Shelly Yechimovich, Lapid he has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu government. But in the campaign, Lapid has set some tough conditions for Netanyahu. First there is 'equality in sharing the burden' of military service – that's an euphemism for draft dodging by the ultra-orthodox. It's been going on for years and had become a fact of political life. Shas and Agdat Yisrael gave the Likud their political support in return for legal concoctions that enabled the 'haredeem' not only to evade military service but also receive financial grants for studying in yeshivas that were far more than the miniscule pay to soldiers serving in the army!

In addition, Lapid has demanded that Netanyahu launch a viable peace process with the Palestinians and initiate steps to end Israel's growing isolation in the international community. On election night, Netanyahu spoke of his willingness for a process for 'true peace'.

Point #3: Lapid's meteoric rise has been propelled by his economic demands of young middle class Israelis who feel they have done all the right things – served in the IDF, gotten an education and work hard but have been shunted aside and are unable to make ends meet. This is due mainly to housing prices that have skyrocketed by 49% during Netanyahu's term. For example, the Housing Ministry is run by Shas minister Ariel Attias who devised cheap housing for the ultra-orthodox. In one case, he designed a whole new town specifically for the ultra-orthodox but it has just been ruled discriminatory by the Supreme Court. If Netanyahu wants Lapid in a new cabinet, he will have to jettison this political chicanery and launch a different economic policy. On this score, Netanyahu has spoken of a 'responsible economic program' for all Israelis. By the way, Netanyahu's Lieberman partners will certainly be gung ho for this approach.

So if Netanyahu corrals Lapid, he's off and running to the magic sixty-one seat majority with some fifty in the bag. Lapid's choices: he will come aboard only on condition that Netanyahu presents a radical new program with guarantees that he means business - slogans won't be enough. As senior coalition partner, Lapid can also make big cabinet portfolio demands, possibly even defense minister for former Shabak Chief Yaacov Perry. (This would neutralize the Likud's Moshe Yaalon, a former IDF Chief of Staff who is Netanyahu's top rival in the party).

Next in line could be Shas itself which might have to bite the bullet even though its mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef recently warned that Shas young men would leave Israel rather than serve in the IDF. But party leader Aryeh Derri, realizing that Shas has to cut its losses, has already said that he is open to compromise. Then there's Tzippi Livni, who if Lapid has his way with Netanyahu, might also agree to join the coalition and 'Bob's your uncle'. Not really. Netanyahu will have a tough time trying to sell a genuine Palestinian peace process to his own hard line Likud caucus members. In the last days of the campaign Netanyahu appealed to Israeli voters:' Give me the power to lead the country' - now he will have to make the same pitch to his own Likud-Beiteinu party.

But again, Lapid is the lynchpin. If he does not find a way into a Netanyahu government after a fair offer, it would mean serving in the opposition wilderness and being accused of jeopardizing the national interest in a time of emergency. (Netanyahu has pointedly named the Iranian nuclear crisis as his first priority). In that case, Lapid would be blamed for waiting cynically for Netanyahu's far Right government to fall. Netanyahu has now pledged to form 'as broad a government as possible' and although this election has knocked him on to the ropes he is not out!

If the final tally ends in a dead heat, or even if the Center-Left bloc wins more seats, could Lapid conceivably try to form his own government? It would obviously have to be based on the support of Israeli Arab Knesset members and this would be a highly improbable scenario.

David Essing

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