In the aftermath of last week’s elections in Israel, some have been quick to write off surprise star Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, as another lack-lustre politician who will once again fail, or even refuse, to agree on a basic set of principles with the Palestinians.
He has already indicated that he will likely join forces with incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose Likud-Beitenu party won the most (31) seats. And he brings with him a set of fresh faces in a political arena long dominated by the same figures.
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While it is still too early to speculate about what the next government will or will not achieve in terms of bringing peace to the region, the next few weeks – as attempts are made to form a coalition government – will be a critical test of whether former journalist Lapid can live up to the hopes of Israelis who truly want to see change in the region.
Lapid, whose party won 19 Knesset (Israeli parliament) seats out of a possible 120 and made him leader of the second largest party, brings with him a real glimmer of hope not only for social change but also for getting the stalled peace process back on track.
This fact has already been reflected in numerous media articles and in comments posted by ordinary Israelis on social media networks.
“Dear Yair, I voted for you and your party because I really believe that you also want to see change in this country,” wrote one fan, Galit Shmuel, on Yesh Atid’s official Facebook page.
“Now you can be really proud of using the term Shinui (Hebrew for change),” she added, referring to the now defunct Shinui party that was started by Lapid’s late father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid.
Part of the elder Lapid’s platform also appears in his son’s party ideology, mainly the emphasis on “sharing the burden” or ensuring that all Israelis, including the ultra-Orthodox, serve in the army.
It is certainly this point, as well as Yesh Atid’s focus on the socio-economic issues that prompted thousands of Israelis to protest in the summer of 2011, that garnered the party its electoral success. However, Lapid has also been adamant that partnering with Netanyahu would mean talking peace too.
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This, however, leaves the novice politician between a rock and a hard place. Joining with Netanyahu is not enough to form a majority government; the two will have to find other political partners.
If Lapid sticks to his guns over compulsory army service, then he and Netanyahu will not likely be able to convince the two ultra-Orthodox or Haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism, which have 18 seats between them – to join their coalition. They have already stated they will not budge on the issue of enforced army service, even though they are less fastidious on the peace process issue.
Alternatively, Netanyahu and Lapid could call on the other new political voice, Naftali Bennett and his invigorated Bayit Hayehudi, or Jewish Home party. Bennett, whose party gained 12 seats, also advocates “sharing the burden.” However, he has repeatedly stated that he is not interested in re-igniting peace talks.
If Lapid wants to make good on all his pre-election promises, he will thus have to convince some of the smaller or “centrist” parties to join his cause.
A coalition with the left-leaning Labor party, which won 15 seats; former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s party Hatnua, with six seats; and Kadima, which only won two spots this time around, could allow him to push socio-economic issues and find a way to breathe life back into the peace process. But can he convince Labor’s Shelley Yacimovitch, who has already declared she is not interested in joining with Netanyahu, and Livni, who refused a part in the coalition last time?
One way to do this could be for Lapid to convince Netanyahu to soften his economic policies and pay more attention to internal social issues.
Although the formation of the next government still seems elusive, the election’s outcome at least suggests that Israelis are no longer satisfied with the status quo. And while it’s still too early to tell if Lapid will pull through, his key position at the moment does provide a chance to break the current stalemate in the peace process.
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A version of this article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).