Yair Lapid – The Israeli Nick Clegg

The similarities are striking. In 2010 David Cameron’s Conservatives were all set to win a thumping majority against an unpopular Labour Leader. Liberal/Left types were deeply pessimistic at the prospect of a return to Tory government and a re-enactment of the 1980s. And then the unthinkable happened. Cameron failed to ‘seal the deal’ with the British public, leaving his modernisation process only half finished and with lingering fears that the Conservatives were still the party of the wealthy. In response came the rise of the Liberal Democrats, powered by the new television debates which highlighted their charismatic and telegenic leader Nick Clegg, who managed to be vague enough to appeal to everyone. Appearing to ‘agree with Nick’ became the only game in town. The election resulted (unusually in Britain) in a hung parliament where the Conservatives were the largest party but lacked an overall majority. While Britain’s archaic electoral system meant the Liberal Democrat’s increased vote was not translated into seats, they were clearly the Kingmakers. Liberal Guardianistas salivated at the prospect of a ‘rainbow coalition’, a hodge podge of Liberal, Labour, Welsh and Scottish and Irish Nationalists. This idea was always fantasy politics – even if they could have agreed upon a common agenda, the parliamentary numbers were barely there, and such a government wouldn’t have lasted 6 months. Instead, the inevitable happened, the Liberal Democrats joined forces with the Tories, gave up on most of their demands and signed up to the Tory austerity programme. The rest is history – tinged with farce.

Fast forward to Israel, January 2013 and Bibi Netanyahu seems to have suffered a similar fate to Cameron. Following a seemingly inspired merger with the Russian based Yisrael Beiteinu, Bibi seemed king of all he surveyed. But victory eluded him – Likud Beiteinu slumped to 31 seats from a pre election combined high of 42. In place of the expected swing to the far right, a new, vague, feel-good party with a highly televisual leader (indeed a former TV presenter) surged to second place with 19 seats. Yair Lapid aimed his campaign at the secular middle class centre, focusing mainly upon the army draft of Haredim and the cost of housing. He avoided the Palestinian ‘issue’ altogether, vehemently denying any suggestions that his was a party of the left. Following the exit polls there was a surge of excitement (albeit much of it on Twitter) about the possibility of assembling a centre-left anti-Nethanahyu government with Lapid as PM. The numbers, however make this impossible: Labour + Yest Atid (Lapid’s party) + Hatnua (Tzip Lipvni) + Meretz + Kadima have a total of 48 seats combined. To reach 60 seats (out of 120) they would need to rely on the 12 votes of Balad, United Arab List and Chadash, usually lumped together as the ‘Arab Parties’. These parties are simply not going to join the government even if they were asked, and they won’t be, Lapid being as reluctant to rely on Arab support as the rest of the Israeli Jewish mainstream. The only alternative would be to woo Shas (11 seats), but it’s hard to see how this could done whilst adhering to Lapid’s only campaign pledge: compelling Yeshiva students to serve in the IDF. So, like the British Rainbow coalition, this idea seems doomed from the start. The much more likely alternative is a Bibi led government, in coalition with Yesh Atid and the newly acceptable face of the hard right, Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home (11 seats). If the remnant of Kadima does make it in to the Knesset on the final count, it could well be brought in, giving a total of 63 seats. This is Bibi’s ideal scenario, he can claim the centre, balancing parties to his left and right, as well as gaining a liberal fig leaf to ward off international criticism. Lapid will extract a few minor concessions on welfare policy, get some movement on the haredi draft issue and receive bums on prime cabinet seats. Naftali Bennet won’t cause too much trouble as long as no concessions to the Palestinians are made (no danger of that with Bibi anyway). Should Lapid get uppity and demand more Bibi can always threaten to bring in the haredi parties (18 votes combined) in his place.

And this is how a wave of success by a shiny centrist party with an appealing leader can come to nothing and allow continued governance by the right. We in Britain, where many lefty types voted Liberal, have learned this the hard way – Israeli centrists are set to suffer a similar disillusion. There is, however, a small consolation. Leaders who sell out their liberal base to prop up a right-wing government do not retain their popularity for long. As Yair Lapid is about to discover, it does not pay to be Nick Clegg.

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