Wednesday 30 January 2013

Lapid Becomes Kingmaker

The election is over, the votes are in and the results are final.  Despite this, we still don’t really know where we stand.  The coalition negotiations are yet to take place, which will probably add most spice to the process.  The big story coming out of the election is the way in which Yair Lapid managed to propel his Yesh Atid (there is a future) party into second place by capturing 19 seats in the Knesset.  None of the opinion polls ahead of the election gave any indication that Yesh Atid was on the verge of such a significant achievement in its first election.  Many are wondering how Yesh Atid managed to sneak in under the radar in this way, and what the future holds for Yair Lapid and his new party.

It seems as though Lapid managed to pace his election campaign perfectly.  He peaked just as people were heading to the polls, still undecided about whose ticket they would place in their voting envelope.  An exit poll of Yesh Atid voters revealed that as many as 30% decided to vote for Lapid’s party in the last 4 days before the election.  This is an astonishing statistic, and reveals how little previously established voting preferences counted for in this election.  I also think that the combination of right of centre diplomatic polices, centre social policies and the insistence that all groups in society bear the burden equally, proved to be a popular platform for voters.  In particular, the idea that concessions should be given neither to the super-wealthy nor to the ultra-Orthodox, reflects a sense of fairness and equality that most Israelis can identify with.  Additionally, Lapid’s view that civil and social issues should have a higher priority on the new government’s agenda than diplomatic issues, has enjoyed a great deal of support.  Without minimising the threat to Israel or the level of its importance, many Israelis are tired of hearing the prime minister spend most of his time talking about Iran.  They would prefer to hear about how he will strengthen the economy, and make it easier for people to earn a decent living.  Lapid sensed this, and managed to incorporate these views into his platform.

Although the son of long-time politician Tommy Lapid, Yair Lapid has no political experience at all.  He is well-known in Israel as a journalist and TV anchor-man, a fact that clearly assisted him in his campaign.  He needs to use the next few years to accumulate as much political experience as he can if he is truly going to be able to take on the job of leading a government in the future, something he claims to have ambitions to do.  This also means that he has little choice but to join the coalition government that Benjamin Netanyahu is currently constructing.  Acting as leader of the opposition cannot be compared to taking on a senior cabinet role in government.  If Lapid is to progress towards his ambition of being a future prime minister of Israel, he will join the coalition at almost any price.

Despite having stood on a platform that opposed many of the outgoing government’s policies, Lapid and Netanyahu are politically not too far apart.  On paper, Lapid and Netanyahu have remarkably similar diplomatic policies.  Lapid appears more determined to create an environment that will encourage direct talks with the Palestinians than Netanyahu has shown himself to be.  Despite this, Lapid ‘s platform is clear in that it does not advocate the splitting of Jerusalem or giving up on the large settlement blocs in the West Bank in pursuit of a two-state solution.  The main difference between Lapid and Netanyahu becomes more obvious when looking at civil and economic policies.  Lapid is determined to pursue a responsible economic policy, which is also satisfies the calls for social justice.  Lapid’s interpretation of this means that he wishes to ensure that the social burden is equalised across all groups in society.  For the most part, this will manifest itself by reducing or withdrawing the special advantages that the ultra-Orthodox groups have enjoyed over many years.  In practice, Lapid aims to ensure that there is no wide-ranging exemption for the ultra-Orthodox from military service (or some form of national service), and he will be seeking to reduce or withdraw the special government grants that are paid to ultra-Orthodox men who are studying in yeshivot (religious learning institutions).  These two aspects have proved to be a drain on Israeli coffers, and have been the cause of great conflict and anger in Israeli society.

The difference between Lapid and Netanyahu is not because they have different basic convictions on the social and economic issues.  On the contrary, I believe that their basic beliefs are extremely similar.  The issue is that Netanyahu has been forced to accommodate the requirements of the ultra-Orthodox bloc in order to secure his position as prime minister.  He has played to the religious voters who support Likud, as well as to the ultra-Orthodox parties who he has been forced to share a coalition table with in the past.  This has meant allocating vast sums of money to maintain and support the stipends being paid to yeshiva students, and perpetuating their exemption from military service.  Both of these measures are extremely unpopular with the non-religious electorate, and contribute in a measurable way to lack of equality in Israeli society.  The decision earlier in 2012 by the High Court of Justice that the exemption from military service granted to ultra-Orthodox men is unconstitutional, has pushed the government into a corner to force it to make some changes to this policy.  If Netanyahu is able to structure a coalition to exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties, there is a greater likelihood that the required changes on the military exemption will be enacted in spite of the protests on the part of the religious groups.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have sensed the danger to their power base, and have decided to create single bloc out of the seats that were won by the two partes – Shas with 11 seats and the United Torah Judaism party with 7 seats.  Their 18 seats is a counter-balance to Lapid’s 19 seats, and forces Netanyahu to make a choice between one or the other.  It is almost inconceivable that Lapid would sit in a government with the religious parties, and vice versa.  It is my expectation that, after all the  negotiations are completed, Lapid will be in the government and the religious bloc will not.

As far as I can tell, Yair Lapid’s longer-term outlook looks more tenuous.  He has successfully created a political party that bases most of its strength on him as the leader.  Aside from himself, the members of the Yesh Atid list are relatively unknown, and much lower profile.  His platform of policies is not very unique, but rather borrows policies from many others, and packages them in a slightly different way.  His ability to continue to present this package in a unique way is key to determining whether Yesh Atid is a one-hit wonder, or whether it will be around in the future.  Political parties that were built around the fame and personality of their leader, have a poor track record in Israel.  Yair’s own father led the Shinui party, a party that no longer exists.  Similarly, Kadima that was built by Ariel Sharon, is in the process of dying.  There are many other examples of this, and I predict that Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party will go the same way.  Perhaps Lapid has achieved what he needs from Yesh Atid.  His strategy may be to continue to lead the party in the current Knesset to his advantage, and then to fold into one of the established parties, probably Likud.  This is probably the best solution for Lapid to ensure his long-term survival in politics.

The tens of thousands of people who voted for Lapid are hoping that he will succeed in converting his written manifesto into policies on the ground, to make a real difference to Israeli society.  If he is able to achieve even a small fraction of what he set out to do, the kingmaker may go on to become a king in his own right.  Failure to do so my relegate him to the political trash pile.  The question is whether he is ready to take on the realities of Israeli politics, and to make them work to his advantage.  The challenge is a tough one.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

To Vote or Not to Vote? That is the Question.

The polls have now closed in the election for the 19th Knesset, and predictions of a low voter turnout have proved to be incorrect.  Even though it was claimed that the election campaign failed to capture the imagination of the electorate,  initial information is that this is the highest voter turnout since the 1999 election.  When the votes have all been counted, it is expected that more than 70% of those entitled to vote will have cast a ballot.  The positive trend even applies to the Arab Israeli sector, which traditionally has a much lower turnout than Jewish Israelis.  Overall, this is good for Israel's democracy, and shows that Israeli voters are less apathetic than was originally thought.  It is entirely logical for Israel to have high voter turnout.  Jews were forced to suffer many years of being denied the right to determine their own destiny.  This should drive people to flood polling stations to vote in order to influence how Jewish life in Israel will be conducted over the next parliament.  There remain decisions to be taken which are of substantial political significance to Israelis concerning the future of the country, and the how to achieve peace in the promised land.  Some may say that these are life and death decisions, and seem important enough to convince most to exercise their democratic right.

Despite the obvious compelling issues that drive Israelis to the polls in significant numbers, there are those who do so somewhat reluctantly.  This is mainly because of the general disillusionment with politicians and the political system.  Gone are the days when people stood for the Knesset purely for the purpose of serving Israelis and improving Israeli society.  The concept of selfless service of our society seems to be a historical dinosaur in Israel, and indeed elsewhere around the world.  While I am not suggesting that people should agree to serve in the Knesset or in government for free or without adequate reward, it is a pity that the reward has become more of the issue than the service.  This has led to increased corruption, and much less trust in politicians and the system that governs the country.  The fact that financial rewards can be extracted has the effect of attracting a certain type of person to stand for the Knesset.  In my view, the public is justified in feeling negative towards politicians, particularly when it is considered that these are the people who will be determining our destiny.

The second reason why people may be reluctant to vote, is the feeling that there will not be any change to the current status quo.  If this is so, why bother turning up to vote?  It has been predicted throughout the election campaign that Netanyahu will be returned as prime minister.  The person who is elected to lead the government is the most important issue at stake in the election.  The rest is in the details.  The fact that Netanyahu has continued to hold a seemingly unassailable advantage gives the feeling that votes cannot, and will not influence anything of any significance.

The government-sponsored advertising to encourage people to turn up to vote has been quite creative and entertaining.  This can claim a great deal of credit for the high voter turnout.  Unfortunately, not the same can be said for the party election broadcasts, and the party election campaigns.  They have been uninspiring, and have not provoked much interest at all.  Better campaigns would, almost certainly, have inspired undecided voters to come out to exercise their votes.

Only a few years ago, Israel had a voter turnout rate of over 80%, and was in the top 25 countries of vote turnout at general elections.  The last three elections before today have shown a dramatic reduction in the number of voters  turning out, to below 65%.  The challenges facing Israel, and the importance of the decisions, are no less than those that Israel was forced to confront at the time of independence in 1948.  Israelis are all required to serve in the army in defense of the country, and this reality should surely encourage people to vote in their droves. Casting a vote for the right option could literally save people's lives if a peace agreement can be reached with the Palestinians.  For this reason, it is appropriate and pleasing that people have decided to exercise their vote today.

Initial exit polls show that the split between the left and the right-wing in the new Knesset will be very narrow.  This reflects that huge dilemma facing Israelis with regard to the direction that should be taken in dealing with Palestinian issue.  Can we trust that there is a way of agreeing a way to survive harmoniously side-by-side with a Palestinian state, or do we take statements at face value which threaten that the Palestinians will not rest until Israel is entirely destroyed?  Most Israelis really wish to believe that there is a solution to give us the peace that we yearn for.  Many believe that this is not achievable right now, due to the Palestinians taking each concession and using it as ammunition to destroy Israel further.  Israelis are also split on the issue of how to deal with the social justice reforms that are being sought for the economy.  How can we give the weaker members of our society the help that they need, without being irresponsible with the economy?  These are extremely heavy and important issues, for which there are no easy answers. The country seems to be split almost down the middle on these matters.

Irrespective of who will ultimately occupy the prime minister's office, and who will sit in the Knesset, this day has been a great victory for democracy in our country.  Many countries that achieve voter turnout in excess of 70%, are those where it is a criminal offence not to vote in the election.  In Israel, such a law is not required in order to convince people to come to the ballots.  We are extremely fortunate to have a Jewish state of our own, and to have the opportunity to vote in elections to participate in the determination of the destiny of our country and our people.  This was finally achieved after many years of being denied the right to vote, and being denied the right to determine our destiny.  The turnout today is a vote of thanks to the many heroes who fought so hard to get us to this position,  and a tribute to the memories of so many lives which were lost in the process.