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Centrists make strong show in Israel, tempering Netanyahu

The strong showing by centrist party Yesh Atid stunned Israeli election pollsters, who had predicted a stronger performance by right-wing parties.

There is a future for Israel’s center after all. In fact, it’s looking surprisingly good.

Yair Lapid, the former TV anchor who entered politics only a year ago, defied all pollsters with a stunning second-place performance for his centrist Yesh Atid party in yesterday’s Israeli elections. While all eyes were on the right-wing leaders parading down the homestretch and waving to the crowds, the handsome rookie surged from behind to claim victory for Israelis who care less about grand ideological visions and more about how they will pay rent.

Mr. Lapid now finds himself in the unlikely position of kingmaker. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose party won a disappointing 31 seats, needs to woo parties with at least 30 seats between them to secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. He has already reached out to Lapid and is likely to offer him a plum position in his cabinet in exchange for the 19 seats earned by Yesh Atid, which means “There is a Future.”

If Lapid accepts, his presence could have a moderating influence on Netanyahu, whose center-right government over the past four years has put forward a raft of laws criticized as antidemocratic. Netanyahu, bolstered in part by his hawkish former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has also nettled the US government by flouting its wishes on the Palestinian issue and pressing for a unilateral Israeli strike in Iran.

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The rise of Lapid, and what it says about the Israeli electorate, suggests Netanyahu would not to be able to continue to pursue such policies, says Itzhak Galnoor, political science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“Even if Netanyahu forms the new government, the entire spectrum – both on domestic affairs and foreign affairs, including a state for Palestinians – has changed dramatically,” says Prof. Galnoor. “We are in a totally different situation now.”

Inexperienced party

Lapid, the son of a novelist and the late politician Tommy Lapid, was criticized at times as something of a lightweight. Not a single member of his party has ever served in parliament, let alone as a government minister. But in a country with many career politicians, where even the most disgraced manage to resurface again, Yesh Atid resonated – which means “There is a future” – with Israelis as a party made up of real people who actually care about their constituents.

Among its unusually varied list of candidates are a US-born rabbi, the first Ethiopian woman ever elected to Israel’s parliament, and enough voices from both left and right to appeal to a broad midsection of the political spectrum. Lapid also recruited security experts, including Yaakov Peri, former head of Shin Bet during the first intifada, and Maj. Gen. Mickey Levy (ret.), former chief of police for Jerusalem during the second intifada.

“In Israel, there is a large constituency which believes in the center,” about 30 seats, says Yehuda Ben Meir of the Institute for National Security Studies. “They don’t have illusions like people on the left have. They know a settlement with the Palestinians is not around the corner … but they’re definitely in favor of a two-state solution.”

Last time around, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni captured 28 of those seats. This time it was Lapid with 19 seats, Ms. Livni with six, and two for Kadima if it still meets the minimum threshold of 2 percent of the vote once all the ballots are counted. Voter turnout was 66 percent – slightly higher than in 2009 and almost 10 percentage points higher than in the recent US election.

So why Lapid over Livni? Part of it is he was able to tap into frustrations that brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets in the summer of 2011.

And at least some voters were attracted by the fact that he consistently stated he would be willing to work with Netanyahu, unlike Shelly Yacimovich of the Labor party, who announced ahead of the election that she would not join a Likud-led coalition government.

“I was debating between Lapid, Livni, and Yacimovich” of the Labor party, says Tel Aviv voter Matan Levanon. “Even though I see myself more in line with [Labor], Lapid was the one that was willing to stick with Netanyahu. It was obvious that he’s going to be the head of the biggest party and the next prime minister, and I think it’s better to support someone that can effect real change from within,” rather than someone who’s working in the opposition.

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“I know a lot of my friends I talked to, a lot of supporters of both Likud and [Labor], voted Yesh Atid,” he adds. “They knew Bibi was going to take the most votes and they wanted someone to keep him away from the ultra-Orthodox.”

Ultra-Orthodox question

With external threats like Iran, the Arab Spring, and Palestinian militancy taking a back seat in this election campaign, one of the central issues that candidates touched on was Israel’s rapidly expanding ultra-Orthodox community. Most ultra-Orthodox men don’t serve in the army and eschew gainful employment in favor of religious study – a situation that was tolerable when the community constituted a tiny percentage of Israelis.

But today, they make up roughly 20 percent of the adult population, and as Israelis grapple with a spike in housing and food prices, there is increasing frustration that the ultra-Orthodox – many of whom receive welfare from the state – are not doing more to share in the burden of defending the state and maintaining a prosperous economy.

Yesh Atid promoted the principle of “equal service for all” in its campaign, outlining a gradual phasing-in of a program that would allow ultra-Orthodox to serve their country and its economy while taking into consideration their cultural and religious values.

Lapid’s party also emphasized the need for better education in Israel, which ranks far below other modernized countries in international testing and teacher salaries. And he called for reining in the size of the Israeli government, which has swelled to 35 cabinet members – five times more than Switzerland, which has a similar population. With a prime minister so beholden to so many ministers, Yesh Atid argues, it is impossible to push forward real reforms.

While pundits and voters alike were surprised that Yesh Atid’s agenda attracted so many voters, there was less surprise that Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu party didn’t do well.

Mr. Levanon, the Yesh Atid voter, says the writing was on the wall when Netanyahu joined forces with Mr. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, quoting a saying that was making the rounds last night.

“Netanyahu,” he says, “is a magician who took two parties and managed to make one disappear.”

* Chelsea B. Sheasley contributed reporting.