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Israel's centre cannot hold

Yair Lapid could end up as camouflage for Netanyahu’s intransigence.

The real winner of Israel’s general election on 22 January was a former TV presenter and newspaper columnist, Yair Lapid, whose party, Yesh Atid (“there is a future”), came from nowhere to grab 19 seats. It now holds the balance of power, should Binyamin Netanyahu wish to remain prime minister. Lauded as a “centrist”, Lapid soon made clear his political inclinations – his party, he said, would not go into a “blocking coalition with the Haneen Zoabis”.

The charismatic and affluent newcomer meant that his party would not enter a coalition with any of Israel’s Arab parties, whose Knesset seats would be needed to make up the numbers for a feasible centre-left bloc. This shorthand, pluralising the name of an outspoken member of the Knesset (profiled in the New Statesman’s “A-Z of Israel” feature, 18 January) to denote all Arab parties, gave away Lapid’s prejudices about Palestinians – who make up 20 per cent of Israel’s population but are treated as second-class citizens.

The revelation was no great surprise. The man whom some commentators cast as a potentially restraining influence on the hard-right Netanyahu has made his opinions about regional politics quite clear. He is for peace negotiations but thinks the Palestinians should give up any hope of securing East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state – though this is one of the core, internationally accepted parameters of a twostate solution.

A few days before the election, Lapid wrote on his Facebook page: “I do not think the Arabs [Palestinians] want peace.” His solution was “to be rid of them and put a tall fence between us and them”.

Israelis, who often mistake novelty for aptitude, seem to like new politicians in the Lapid mould. With an ex-politician father (the late Tommy Lapid) and long career in TV, Lapid pretty much embodies how coastal Israel sees itself: relaxed, secular and reasonable. Moderation, to the point of meaninglessness, is also an appealing point: Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of the liberal newspaper Haaretz, wrote of the Yesh Atid leader that he “adapted his messages to voters’ interests. His strategy was to find the path of least resistance.” In other words, his campaign strategy was not to have one.

He did, however, have a catchy slogan – “Where’s the money?” – which tapped in to concerns about spiralling prices, dwindling cheques and a government in thrall to a tycoon elite. Such concerns sprawled on to the streets in 2011 during protests larger than any seen before in Israel.

Yesh Atid, which seeks to represent the battered middle class, doesn’t have a coherent policy on these issues, either – the party has made only vague noises about the importance of education and housing reform, for instance. In fact, on economics, Lapid doesn’t differ much from his soon-to-be coalition leader; both he and Netanyahu are free-market capitalists.

The kingmaker has been offered the position of finance minister, which would fit his supposed socio-economic agenda. Yet the word is that he has been advised not to take it: harsh budget cuts are on the horizon and it would not look good for the “Where’s the money?” man to lead the department responsible for taking away even more of it.

Another scenario is that Lapid, who has no political experience, will take the role of foreign minister. There, he could act as camouflage for Netanyahu’s intransigence, with Israel not budging on settlement expansion, or negotiations, or anything else – but at least not budging with a suave smile on its face.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap