Unstable alliances. Triumphant conquerors laid low. The old master outmaneuvering the young upstart. Tenuous peace talks. These are the facts of Israeli politics today, as political tides shift against the once-dominant Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party with no one clearly emerging as a new political power.
Several months ago, I wrote about the parliamentary elections that had just taken place in Israel. At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud-Beiteinu list had just been dealt a stunning defeat at the hands of Lapid, whose hopeful party Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) shot him to an impressive second-place finish in the elections, garnering 19 of the Knesset’s 120 proportionally elected seats. As predicted, Lapid ended up in coalition with Netanyahu, alongside the right-wing Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett, and Tzipi Livni’s center-left Hatnuah party.
The coalition was awkward from the start. Netanyahu personally dislikes Bennett, perhaps because he went from being Netanyahu’s campaign manager to leaving his party to lead The Jewish Home. On the left side of the coalition, the prime minister was put in a political bind regarding his partners’ campaign promises. Lapid and Livni both ran on the promise of restarting peace talks with Palestine. Netanyahu is no peacenik, and Bennett has analogised Palestine to “shrapnel” in Israel’s “rear end.” Needless to say, he is not a fan of peace negotiations.
As most Brits probably could have told him, being the junior partner in a coalition has not allowed Lapid to fulfill his political goals or rise to great heights of popularity. New Haaretz polling shows that if another election were held, his party would be likely to lose 9 of its 19 seats. The majority of these seats seem likely to move leftward, and the polling shows the center-right coalition dropping from 68 to 62 seats, barely enough for a majority. Lapid is viewed as a tremendous disappointment, and while the coalition is not a strong one, Netanyanu has reasserted himself as the person Israelis find most qualified to be Prime Minister. Unseating him would require a massive resurgence of either Lapid or a left-wing party, neither of which seems particularly likely given the current political climate.
Recent municipal elections display some of these national tensions. While incumbents mostly held their seats, the three biggest parties—Likud, Yesh Atid, and Labour—all lost ground, particularly on the city council level. Ultra-Orthodox parties won some small short-term victories, but their disunity in the Jerusalem mayor’s race meant that the left-wing incumbent remains in office. This defeat may have further reaching consequences for ultra-Orthodox parties. Prior to the election it was let slip that in order to dismantle the coalition and join the government, some ultra-Orthodox leaders coordinated with Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisreal Beiteinu party within the Likud Beiteinu list, on the race in Jerusalem. They want Lapid, who ran on dismantling the law exempting the ultra-Orthodox from the draft, out of power. Lieberman is clearly a dealmaker, considering his party’s union with Netanyahu’s, and it is thought that he could disassemble the coalition if he wanted. With his loss in Jerusalem, however, it is unclear if Lieberman will still be willing to tear apart his party’s coalition.
Naturally, maneuvering over the peace talks is equally fraught. Livni has been placed in charge of Israel’s negotiation team. The talks are secret, save occasional leaks, but that has not stopped them being used for political advantage. Lapid and Shelly Yacimovich, the leader of the Labor Party, have both moved leftward to chase pro-peace sentiments among the voting public, who would reward the more left-wing Meretz with six more seats, reaching their old record of twelve, according to Haaretz. This is good politics and reopening peace talks in important, but for the moment at least, left-tending voters seem to prefer the more credible Meretz to the centrist parties. Meanwhile, Bennett is aggressively pushing a law that would require a supermajority of the Knesset to vote before negotiations on Jerusalem are allowed. Netanyahu opposes the bill but is wary of his weak right flank, which looks ready to be torn off by Bennett. With all this in mind, it seems like the coalition may not need Lieberman’s help to disintegrate.
That said, this isn’t necessarily bad news for the peace process. The ultra-Orthodox could be open to peace talks in exchange for Netanyahu walking back some of Lapid’s reforms. Even if the coalition doesn’t split, the leftward pressure on all levels of Israeli politics is good news. If Israelis truly have a desire for peace talks, exerting political pressure on all parties, not just through elections, is the way to do that. In a Nixon-in-China sort of way, a Netanyahu-led coalition might have the best chance at making a deal with credibility to Israelis (although probably not to Palestinians). That said, Netanyahu has no reason to pursue such a deal without broad political support. Hopefully voters and politicians in Israel will make their support loudly known.
For the moment, there is as much cause to be optimistic about the talks as there ever has been. In the Haaretz poll, 49% of respondents did not want to suspend talks with Palestine, in spite of recent terrorist attacks. The Knesset also contains a great number of pro-peace politicians. Hopefully voters and politicians in Israel will make their support loudly known. If there is any hope for a resolution to the negotiations, it will be because the voices of people spoke out for peace, and politicians listened.