Israel’s January Surprise

The pundits were wrong: Israeli voters aren't lurching to the right.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

TEL AVIV – With all eyes on the expected rise of Naftali Bennett, the poster boy of the settler movement, it was centrist Yair Lapid, a former newscaster, who emerged as the rising star in Israeli politics following Tuesday’s election. In the process, he served up an all-you-can-eat buffet of crow to the chattering classes.

To be fair, Israeli elections are hard to predict. The Times of Israel‘s Raphael Ahren noted that polls are deeply flawed in Israel, and dark-horse candidates often surge unexpectedly. But this election’s wrong-headed guidance, mostly forwarded by analysts in the United States, went beyond the numbers — it was wrapped up in their narrative of where Israel was heading.

Pundits declared that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was preparing for a war against Iran while building more settlements, and the Israeli people roundly backed him. As David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker, "the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right" — a process that would buttress Bibi’s policies and, in the process, isolate Israel from the United States.

This, to put it mildly, did not happen.

Netanyahu’s coalition party won an estimated 31 seats — a far cry from the 48 seats he initially expected after merging parties with right-wing politician Avigdor Liberman. And after all the hoopla, Bennett’s party, Jewish Home, only managed to earn 11 seats.

The centerleft, meanwhile, surged. Lapid and his new Yesh Atid Party took second place with an estimated 19 seats, followed by the left-leaning Labor Party, which captured an estimated 15 seats.

At last count, according to Israeli television, the Israeli public was split straight down the middle, 60 seats for the left and 60 seats for the right, with religious parties capable of defecting to the left if offered the right deal.

There is a high probability, given Likud’s numbers, that Netanyahu will remain prime minister. But the Israeli electorate, by giving voice to the left, has changed the tone and tenor of the next Israeli coalition government, which will invariably include a broader spectrum of views on everything from Iran to the peace process to a host of domestic issues.

What’s remarkable here is not that Israelis voted for left-leaning parties. After all, it’s a country that was founded upon leftist principles. What’s remarkable is that Israelis voted for these left-leaning parties now.

Israel’s security challenges are as daunting as they have ever been. Iran threatens to build a nuclear weapon and could have enough uranium to produce one in little more than a year. The Arab Spring has led to the rise of new Islamist governments that spew invective at the Jewish state, casting doubt on the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and understandings that have yielded quiet borders for years. Hamas and Hezbollah are stockpiling rockets in Gaza and Lebanon, preparing for the next round of war. And Israel’s supposed partner for peace, the Palestinian Authority, refused to negotiate even when Netanyahu begrudgingly imposed a settlement freeze. Relations between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, who just won a second term in office, have been chilly if not downright icy.

In other words, the winds of war are blowing. If ever there were a time that Israel would be expected to prefer a cabinet of right-wingers, it would be now.

Yet Lapid’s meteoric rise, along with a formidable Labor presence in the next Knesset, indicates that many Israelis are not prepared to jump headlong into conflict.  Indeed, Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, means "There is a future." And his secular, centrist message reportedly resonated among younger voters.

But there’s another explanation for Lapid’s rise. Israel is suffering from a leadership deficit: The country may not have voted for him as much as it voted against their stagnant political class. Many of the same politicians have represented their parties for years, preventing new ideas from entering the political marketplace. At the risk of sounding like Thomas Friedman, my Israeli cab driver explained, "There was no one good to vote for. So, the public voted for someone new."

Or, as celebrated Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi recently noted in Tablet magazine, "I voted for Yair [Lapid] because, as a centrist Israeli, I have no other political home."

Whatever their reasons, the Israeli public has just sent an important message to its leadership. There will be an estimated 47 new members of the next Knesset, an astonishing turnover rate. At the forefront of these new faces will be Lapid, who could end up as foreign minister, or even defense minister, in a new government.

So much for Israel’s hard right turn.

Jonathan Schanzer is the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @JSchanzer

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