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The centre of all things

The centre of all things
5th February 2013 ICSR Team
In M!ddle Easterners

Israeli elections have their internal logic. Like other systems, it’s based on the notion that in order to win a party needs the most votes. But unlike other electoral systems it proves, every once in a while, that gaining votes is not necessarily enough to win. The 2009 elections resulted in a winner which didn’t gain the majority of the votes. The 2013 elections resulted in a loser who won the votes (Netanyahu) and a winner who was far behind in the count (Lapid). The winners are usually defined as either the left or right. This time – the winner is the centre.

Ever since these elections were announced, they were said to be “predicted”. Since the very beginning, the media declared Netanyahu the winner, almost effortlessly. His political rivals (Lapid and Yehimovich) clearly stated that they don’t see themselves as candidates for Prime Minister. The numbness of the elections was conveyed in a clear sense of carelessness felt among Israelis. Tzipi Livni’s late decision to join the race, while challenging Netanyahu personally, created a bigger discussion about the situation in the center-left bloc than about the actual question of who will form the next government. This discussion about the inner workings of the blocs, which later erupted in the right wing bloc with the rise of Bennet’s party, resulted in the ultimate rise of the centrist Lapid which intensively, hectically and at times against all polls – positioned himself as the right choice of those who couldn’t choose between the leaders of the more defined right and the left. As the old jewish saying goes “while the two were battling -the third one took it all”.

The decision of 500,000 Israelis to vote for Lapid is politically dramatic and socially enlightening. It conveys a cultural phenomenon which has taken hold of Israel in the past two decades. It’s defined by many as “the era of reality”, an era in which the new cultural heroes are ordinary people who touch your heart through their television performance, but hardly challenge the audience intellectually. It shows that the sense of despair with politics and politicians, shared by so many Israelis, evolved into a quest for the new, the exciting, the one who we still haven’t tried. This quest turned into (and magnified) the social protests of 2011 when hundreds of thousands of Israelis screamed they’ve had enough – but couldn’t really define what it is they want instead. With the absence of a clear definition of what’s right and what’s detested and the clear dislike of the political definitions of right and left, rose the candidate of the consensus:  The most popular news anchor and talk-show host, who also writes the most popular column in the most popular newspaper. A man who wrote the words for popular songs and even more popular books, a man once defined by his father as “all that’s Israeli”.

Lapid couldn’t become the solution for those who know what they don’t like but differ on what they do without two critical conditions:

First, an enormous discontent with the prime minister, who, in four years, drifted from his own electorate in the center-right and the potential electorate in the center. Unlike almost all Prime Ministers in the past, Netanyahu had an excellent chance to be re-elected, as the press and the polls declared him “the next Prime Minister” ever since he was elected. Commentators repeatedly told us that he has no real opponents, which only served to deepen the sense of despair of those who were disappointed in him. This build up of exhaustion erupted in the ballots. Even after forming the mega-party with Lieberman, he ended up with almost the same number of seats in the Knesset his party solely had in the previous Knesset. Between 5-10 mandates of people who were supposed to support Netanyahu decided to agree to disagree with him and found themselves voting for other parties, many went with Lapid.

Centre-right voters were able vote for Lapid due to the second condition: His impressive ability to speak to the consensus, say the right words, touch the right subjects, use the right tone and have the right look. Lapid was accused of not being clear about the issues, while in fact his blurred positions enabled different voters to find something to identify with. Those who believe in the need for a peace process could find his aspiration for peace. Those who wish to be strong against concessions could identify with his remarks about Jerusalem and settlements. Those who feel the budget wasn’t rightfully spent could identify with his main slogan “where’s the money”; and those who feared the left socialist tone were calmed by his call to stop battling the upper class. Lapid’s famous ability to find the right words for his readers and viewers evolved into him successfully delivering the right slogans for voters. From being a writer of the consensus – he turned into the consensus.

The combination of Netanyahu’s horrendous result and Lapid’s tremendous result equaled a complete tie between the blocs, but Lapid’s success was in the fact that he isn’t really a part of any bloc. His unique positioning in the centre, echoed by almost 20 seats in the Knesset, puts him in the position to become the real coalition-builder. Theoretically, Netanyahu can form a narrow coalition without him, practically – but he needs Lapid with him. So, Lapid could force Netanyahu to abandon his political base and create a government without the right wing or ultra-orthodox parties, practically however, he needs to balance Netanyhua’s existing base with other centre-left parties he can force on Netanyahu.

One way or another, in an election in which the winner didn’t really win, and the loser didn’t really lose the next coalition will inevitably be one of compromise. It will be based on what almost everyone can agree on – the need for a change in military/national service of the ultra orthodox while “walking on egg shells” on other centrist issues – the peace process, economic burdens and the electoral system.

Election night will probably be the last happiest night Lapid may ever have in his political career. Now, the burden of proof lies on his shoulders. The stakes are high and his future is unclear. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to be the consensus when you actually make the decisions. But one thing is for sure – Lapid (torch, in Hebrew) lived up to his name, and shed a flaming light on the Israeli centre, making it the most important political force on the Israeli political map. Now he really is in the center of all things.

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