Op-Ed: The Lapid Factor in the Coalition Equation
After Likud Beytenu’s Pyrrhic victory in the Israeli elections, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will most likely be confronted with the formidable task of piecing together a new coalition. Given the diverse group of potential partners, this will be no easy task. First and foremost in this cast of characters is Yesh Atid, led by popular TV personality Yair Lapid, who surprised everyone by becoming the second largest party in the incoming Knesset. It now seems clear that the key to the new coalition is in its hands.
Defining his party as Center rather than Left, Lapid has been quite clear about his pragmatic views, especially on the issue of the peace process and a potential Palestinian state. Despite the mainstream media’s penchant for lumping him together with Shelly Yechimovich’s Labor and Tzippi Livni’s Hatnua, who have both been vocal supporters of the two-state solution, despite abundant evidence that there is no sincere partner on the other side, Lapid has been quite clear about where he stands, saying, “I don’t like the tendency to blame the Israeli side. Most of the blame belongs to the Palestinian side, and I am not sure that they as a people are ready to make peace with us.” Such a Bibiesque position places him squarely in the center of the political spectrum, as do his stated views on the economy, advocating reduced taxes and fairness for the middle class and working families.
Aside from these centrist positions, the banner that has consistently been raised by Lapid has been his call for equalizing the burden of military/national service among all sectors of the population. While this stand has been popular and useful for Yesh Atid in attracting votes, it may prove to be Bibi’s most difficult challenge in forming a coalition, as the two hareidi parties, UTJ and Shas, also potential coalition partners, have vowed to join forces in fiercely opposing the drafting of yeshiva students.
Which way will it go in the coalition-building process? Expect Netanyahu and his Likud Beytenu (31 seats in the new Knesset) to turn first to Lapid, with his 19 seats, focusing on their shared positions on foreign policy and the economy to cement the relationship. The PM will clearly state his agreement with the principle, if not the full details, of equalizing the military/national service burden.
Then will begin the difficult process of placating Shas (11 seats) by agreeing that the process of drafting hareidi men will be gradual and that they will be consulted. Despite its stated opposition to any sort of draft, Shas will most likely accept the fig-leaf and join the coalition, even if UTJ (7 seats) stays in the opposition. The purse strings of government ministries and the vast political influence that comes with such power have always been on the very top of the Shas list of priorities, so they will be unlikely to choose the wilderness of the opposition. That brings the coalition to a majority of over 60 seats in the Knesset.
Netanyahu will then likely reach an agreement with the rejuvenated (Religious Zionist) Bayit Yehudi (11 seats), vaguely satisfying its conditions with some practical assurances about the importance of settlement in Judea and Samaria and the value of Jewish, Zionist education, bringing the total number of seats to about 72 of 120 seats in the Knesset, a solid majority for a moderate right-center coalition.