Yair Lapid, Telegenic Kingmaker, Has Rough Road Ahead

Centrist Star Wants To Build Coalition But It Won't Be Easy

Shrinking Center: He’s Israel’s man of the moment. But things are about to get very, very tricky for Yair Lapid.
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Shrinking Center: He’s Israel’s man of the moment. But things are about to get very, very tricky for Yair Lapid.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published January 24, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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This could be a pipe dream, though. However moderate the two leaders’ personal images, Lapid’s hand-picked team is well to his left and Bennett’s bench is uniformly on the right. Lapid’s top lieutenants include two determined advocates of Palestinian statehood, freezing settlements and 1967 borders with land swaps: former Shin Bet director Yaakov Peri and Herzliya Mayor Yael German, a longtime stalwart of the left-wing Meretz. Most of their caucus agrees. Bennett’s party, on the other hand, is utterly opposed to any Palestinian statehood; indeed, at least six of his 10 lieutenants have spent their careers in militant settler activism. For that matter, about half of Netanyahu’s caucus flat-out opposes Palestinian statehood and dismisses Bibi’s own two-state talk as just so much diplomatic humbug. Further complicating matters, the rest of Lapid’s bench consists of liberal warriors for women’s rights, religious pluralism and similar social causes, all flatly opposed by Bennett’s hard-line conservative crew.

Even if they find a common language, a 63-seat majority is impossibly unstable. How do they bulk up? Looking to their right, they find the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Both are implacably opposed to drafting yeshiva students, the sole basis for Lapid’s signing on. On the left they meet Tzipi Livni, whose platform begins and ends with Palestinian statehood.

Lapid’s alternative, joining fellow liberals Livni and Yachimovich in a left-leaning coalition, is no less complicated. They begin with 60 seats. This shuts out Netanyahu by denying him a 61-seat majority. But it doesn’t give them a majority. Moreover, their 60 seats include 12 members of anti-Zionist, Arab-backed parties that have never been part of an Israeli coalition. The liberal trio could theoretically woo over a few lawmakers from the right and form a minority government, relying on tacit Arab backing. But no lawmakers on the right would agree to be part of it.

To form a governing coalition, then, they need to bring over the two Haredi parties en bloc, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Happily, neither party opposes Palestinian statehood in theory. As non-Zionist Haredi parties, they don’t regard Israel as the biblical Jewish kingdom, and therefore the Torah’s promised borders having no bearing on policy.

Rumors are flying, too, of back-channel outreach to the left from members of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu third of the combined Likud-Beiteinu list who might cross over if the Haredim do. Many in Lieberman’s devoutly secular group don’t object to Palestinian statehood — in fact, they’d be happy to include Israeli Arab villages in a land swap.

As for Shas, its leaders have stated repeatedly that they could join either side this year. One, party founder Aryeh Deri, who was jailed in 2000 for taking bribes but reclaimed a top spot this year, is a staunch dove and social democrat. His return appears to have tipped the party leftward.

Of course, that puts the kibosh on drafting yeshiva students. Did we mention that this is messy?

Lapid has about a week or two from election day to tell the president which of his principles he wants to betray. When the countdown begins depends, perhaps appropriately, on how long it takes to tally absentee ballots from diplomats, soldiers, prisoners and institutionalized mental patients. The outcome will determine Israel’s future.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com.


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