Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On Yesterday's Historic Israeli Elections

Yesterday, Israelis went to the polls to determine the new makeup of the 19th Israeli Knesset. All 120 seats were up for grabs, and while Israeli pollsters largely predicted that current Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu's Likud bloc would retain its plurality in the Knesset, that margin would shrink and his current coalition government would see a shakeup. Currently, Netenyahu's coalition is Likud 27, Yisrael Beiteinu 15, Shas 11, Jewish Home 3, Independence (barak's party) 5, and UTJ 5.

Boy were they ever right about that.

The results are in, and there's a huge shift in the political landscape - much of it is personality driven.

Likud, which formed a bloc vote with Yisrael Beiteinu, won 31 seats (compared with 42 under the old grouping). Habayit Hayehudi had 11. Religious parties Shas maintained their 11 seats, while UTJ picked up two seats to 7 from 5. Arab parties combined for 12 seats (10% of the Knesset).

Yair Lapid, who formed a new political party for this election, exceeded all expectations and won 19 seats, making him the head of the second largest bloc in the Knesset.

Labor came in with 15 seats, Meretz and Hatunah with 6 each. Kadima, which had been formed by Ariel Sharon out of disaffected Likud and Labor, managed to scratch out two seats (early reports yesterday had indicated that they would have been shut out of the Knesset altogether). Exit polling by Channel 1, 2, and 10 all indicated that Kadima would be toast and underestimated the Arab vote

Lapid could choose to either form a government with Netenyahu or lead the opposition.

This gives Lapid tremendous sway over how Netenyahu's government will address outstanding issues that are critical to Israel's economic and social progress, including the Tal Law reformation process, economic and social opportunities, and the peace process that has all but ground to a halt.

Everyone and their grandmother is giving Lapid advice on how to proceed. After all, his choices will affect how the new coalition government is cobbled together. It could land Lapid with a major cabinet position and sway over policy.

That's precisely what Israel needs - someone who will address the issues pragmatically and integrate the Haredi into Israeli society. The Tal Law is at the forefront of that debate, and it's past time for the religious community to better integrate into Israeli society - not only with military service (or government service of some form), but to better integrate into the Israeli economy.

While the Israeli economy is a tremendous incubator of technology and medical advances, the Haredi community is largely on the sidelines. Getting that untapped pool of knowledge and insight into the economy would greatly expand economic opportunities for all.

That's part of Lapid's goal and mission, although some are seeing it as a combative effort to eliminate longstanding exemptions for the Orthodox. I think that's the wrong view on this issue. Mandatory service of some form will help unify Israeli society whereas the current exemptions only lead to further stratification.

At the same time, the new government will have to address the fact that the peace process is in a holding pattern. That doesn't sit well with armchair diplomats who think that Israel's intransigence is the reason there isn't a 2-state solution, but the problems extend beyond Israel's political situation to the fact that the Palestinians aren't exactly seeking a 2-state solution as Hamas reminds everyone on a regular basis. They have no intention of seeking peace with Israel or recognizing Israel's rights to territories either inside or outside the 1948 or 1967 borders.

The current Israeli position is to essentially do the minimum needed to work with the Palestinian Authority on issues and address Hamas only if Hamas and the other terror groups fire mortars or rockets at Israel. The Gaza disengagement showed Israel's polity just where Hamas' intentions lie. Even if Fatah seeks a peace deal, it would not address the situation in Gaza unless you're going to recognize that there's a de facto 3-state solution (Hamas' Gaza, Fatah's West Bank, and Israel).

All the other issues that flow from the still present schism between Fatah and Hamas are the main reason Israel has no reason to address a peace deal. They have no one to negotiate with. Only when the Palestinians resolve their own internal politics - and accept Israel's rights to exist, can the other issues begin to get addressed through negotiations (and I'd prefer that they be done in back channels where there's a greater flow of dialogue, than in publicly held negotiation sessions that generally lead to meaningless gestures and posturing that sets back the process).

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