First, the good news: The elections in Israel this week have produced some surprising and encouraging, limited as they are, results. To begin with, while Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud-Beiteinu, has retained its position as the larger political party in the upcoming Knesset with 31 MKs, and while this development most certainly positioning the outgoing Prime Minister as the most likely candidate to be Israel’s next PM, he and his party have suffered, at the same time, a severe blow. The party has lost about a quarter of its Knesset members, and when one takes into account the fact that it is a party that was united prior to the election of two previous parties (a very Israeli thing), it means that in reality Netanyahu’s Likud party has no more than 20 MKs, if that. This is by no means a strong vote of confidence; in truth, a defeat is more like it.
The second encouraging development to come out of the elections is the rise of Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party. A newly formed party, it gained a surprising 19 MKs, which positions it as the second largest party in the new Knesset. Similar such surprising results for new parties – only to disappear soon from the political arena with the same meteoric speed with which they originally propelled into prominence – had happened before (case in point, Yair’s father Tommy Lapid and his Shinui party). Still, from no-party to 19 seats in the space of a year is a major achievement and development. And Yair Lapid – a novice politician, yet charismatic TV personality – possesses, so it seems, some promising good qualities for a new kind of Israeli leader. Indeed, his platform and talk in the campaign centered on economic, social, middle class, and equality (ultra-orthodox’ service in the army and in the country’s work-force) issues, shying away, to a large degree, from the burning issues of war and peace with the Palestinians.
The third encouraging development is that, with the near-death of the Kadima party (2 seats) – yes, PM Sharon and PM Olmert’s party – the Labor party regained some strength and momentum with 15 seats. And while this is still a far cry from the power and influence of the old ruling Labor party, it may yet signify a return to form and – just maybe – to power in the future. Shelly Yacimovich, its new leader – also a TV personality – is one of a troika of women party leaders. Tzipi Livni with her new party, Hatnua, gained 6 MK seats, and Zahava Gal-On, the leader of the Meretz party, has also gained 6 mandates. Should these three women were to unite under one party roof – fat chance, I know, but still – they will have the largest block or party in the Knesset (there are 26 women in new Knesset, the most ever). And as is the case with Yesh Atid, they represent the sane, secular, Tel-Avivian center-to-left side of the Israeli people and politics. United, it has a significant role to play in the current, and future Israel.
Now, secondly, to the bad news: The consequences of the new elections regarding the Palestinian issue and the Iranian issue, are more likely than not to remain more of the same, as far as Israel is concerned. Yet far worse as far as America, the Arab world and the European nations are concerned. Of course, it all depends on what kind of government Mr. Netanyahu will eventually form – he has vowed to form a broad coalition, which is easier said than done – but no matter what, some worrying signs are blinking red already as a result of this election and the campaign that led to it.
Most candidates paid but a lip service to these issues, and together with the Israeli public at large, tried to concentrate instead on domestic issues. The exception was Naftali Bennett and his party Habayit Hayehudi, the darlings of the campaign – until the results with Yesh Atid overshadowed them somewhat – who bluntly declared that he favors the annexation of the larger part of the West Bank, and thus nailing shut once and for all the coffin on the two-state solution. He may still be serving in the new government, and disastrously for Israel and the Jewish People, may see his vision come true. A likely coalition of Likud, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, might de-facto produce such an outcome.
Or worse. “Israel society today is in despair,” said Yossi Klein Halevi (according to the NY Times Jan., 21), a journalist and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, “And despair is a dangerous political place, because despair can yield extreme temptations.” Such “temptation” can be an adventure in Iran, to deflect the Palestinian issue and America’s wrath away, and retain the status quo. Since Mr. Netanyahu will find a much stronger President Obama standing against him in the White House, sandwiched by tall and strong Kerry and Hagel on both his sides, he surely won’t be able to maneuver and play with the American president that easily any longer.
Even worse. It is conceivable – unlikely as it may seem at the moment – for Mr. Netanyahu in his thirst to rule, to form a coalition with Habayit Hayehudi and the other two religious, ultra-orthodox parties. To secure such coalition, he may need one smaller partner, and may succeed – as he had done previously with Labor and Ehud Barak – to convince, let’s speculate Kadima to join him on the premise of this or that, and therefore build a generally right-wing, fervently religious coalition. Such narrow coalition, 62 MKs or so, won’t disguise its extreme policies with any fig leaves, but pursue and execute them in broad daylight. And that, my friends, spells trouble. Big time. Or as Etgar Keret, a celebrated Tel Aviv short story writer and filmmaker said (NY Times, Jan., 21) about this election campaign: “In a metaphorical way, we are choosing the new captain of the Titanic.”