Centrist candidate Yair Lapid hopes for staying power


The key word in Yair Lapid’s political vocabulary might be “but.”

His Yesh Atid Party is not right wing, he says, but it isn’t left wing either. He wants to withdraw from the West Bank, but disavows both a unilateral pullout and bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He wants Israel to allow civil unions, but would maintain the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage.

And on March 1, he wouldn’t directly criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to the U.S. Congress, but lamented that Israel wasn’t working with the White House to combat the Iranian nuclear program.

“Nobody is my natural partner,” Lapid said in an interview on Sunday, two weeks before Israel’s March 17 elections. “If there’s somebody close enough to my way of thinking and my ideology, I need not establish Yesh Atid. We are not in the right or the left, or the center-right or center-left. We are the center-center.”

Established only two years ago, Yesh Atid emerged to become the Knesset’s second-largest party in 2013 elections, presenting itself as a third-way alternative to the traditionally dominant Likud and Labor parties. Led by Lapid, a charismatic former television journalist, Yesh Atid’s challenge this year is to prove that a party built around personality and claiming to represent Israel’s shifting political center can have staying power.

A litany of other parties — including one led by Lapid’s father — have failed in the quest to create a third way in Israeli politics. Tommy Lapid won 15 seats with Shinui in 2003, only to lose them all in 2006. The centrist Kadima led the government for three years and was the Knesset’s largest party at the start of 2013; it no longer exists. Factions calling themselves the Center Party, Democratic Movement for Change, Third Way and others have all met the same end.

Despite these cautionary tales, Lapid has doubled down on his lack of a fixed right-left ideology.

Where other parties invested in short online videos, Yesh Atid put out a three-hour “anti-viral” ad explaining its platform. While other parties declared their intention to join a coalition led by Likud or the center-left Zionist Union, Lapid has refused to say. Meanwhile, another new centrist party, Kulanu, has captured the fresh-face momentum in this election and forced Lapid to run on his record. Current polls show Yesh Atid winning about a dozen seats in the next Knesset, enough to be the parliament’s third- or fourth-largest party.

“We are the people who believe life is more complicated than one sentence,” Lapid said. “We are the party of the neglected Israeli middle class.”

A former television news anchor, Lapid entered politics in advance of the January 2013 elections. In that campaign, he ran on a largely domestic platform of lowering the cost of living and expanding the mandatory military draft to include the Charedi Orthodox.

Following the 2013 vote, Lapid became finance minister under Netanyahu, but his approval ratings plummeted after he raised taxes. Netanyahu fired him in December after their relationship soured.

On Sunday, Lapid called their coalition the “wrong government” to achieve everything he promised during the last campaign. Still, he defended his legislative accomplishments, including laws that required some Charedi men to serve in the military and increased funding for Holocaust survivors.

“We have passed equality of burden, we have introduced math and English [education] to Charedi youngsters, we have helped Holocaust survivors,” he said. “These all happened in this hostile environment. If you are determined and focused and on the mark, you can achieve a lot even if you were in the wrong government.”

In January, Lapid accused Netanyahu of “destroying Israel’s relations with the United States” with his plan to address Congress about Iran’s nuclear program. On Sunday, he said Israel should endeavor to work with the United States in guiding negotiations with Tehran.

“The thing is to be involved right now,” he said. “We’re not there, we are not at the table, not in a direct or indirect way. No one is talking to us, no one is listening to us.”

Despite his focus on domestic policy two years ago, Lapid has grown increasingly vocal — and increasingly left-leaning — on the peace process. Upon taking office, Lapid opposed a freeze on West Bank settlement construction to help jump-start peace talks with the Palestinians. On Sunday he called for a regional peace conference under whose auspices Israel would withdraw to its main West Bank settlement blocs as a first step toward a final peace accord. He did not rule out using the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative as a basis.

“About the kind of peace we want to create, we’ll talk in a decade,” he said. “What we need now is to get out of the territories. We are going to separate from them. We don’t care what they do on the other side. If they call it a state, they call it a state. If they call it Disneyland, they call it Disneyland.”

Lapid has high hopes for this month’s election, though he’s noticeably more modest than before. After the 2013 vote, Lapid openly proclaimed his ambition to succeed Netanyahu as prime minister. Now his name doesn’t even appear in polls for the top job. Lapid’s objective now is less about convincing Israelis he has the mettle to be their leader than it is to prove he’s not simply a passing fad.

“The minute we started to work intensively, just explaining the things we did, they opened their eyes,” he said. “There’s always a second chance to make a first impression.” 

What is the Israeli election really telling the Palestinians?


Without a doubt, at the moment, the Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank are riding high, flexing their muscles, and feeling very confident about what they view as an impressive string of recent victories.  The leaders of Hamas, for their part, have excited the whole Arab world by taking on the Israelis and successfully firing hundreds of rockets into the heartland of Israel, reaching her main population centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the great delight of the Arab street.

Mahmoud Abbas and his supporters in Ramallah can tout their stunning victory at the United Nations, where an unprecedented 138 nations recognized the existence of a Palestinian State and granted them observer status, even though they stubbornly bypassed any bilateral talks with Israel.

But, if that is all the Palestinians and their newfound friends in the Moslem Brotherhood in Cairo have learned from the recent outbreak, then they will be embarking on the same road that has led the Arab World from one disaster to the next for the last 65 years.  They continue to live in a fantasy world hiding from their citizens the simple fact that, in spite of their oil reserves, Israel, warts and all, is by far the most vibrant, dynamic and free country in the entire Middle East.

Yes, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu fell far short of the vote of confidence he expected.  Nonetheless, there is no question that he will remain Israel’s Prime Minister.  Yes, all eyes are now on Yair Lapid and his party Yesh Atid, a virtual newcomer to politics, who overnight managed to build a coalition of both left of center and right of center Israelis frustrated with the countries direction, to become the leader of the second most important party in Israel.  Truth is — Lapid and Bibi agree on most of the major issues confronting Israel, including Iran and not dividing Jerusalem.

For those Palestinians sincere about seeking a way to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, they must ask themselves some fundamental questions – why is Netanyahu still going to be the Prime Minister of Israel?  Why didn’t the Israelis choose Shelly Yacimovich, the Labor Party candidate, long regarded as Israel’s peace party?  What is it about the Palestinians that still make Israelis suspicious about their intentions? 

Unquestionably, the answer is because the people of Israel do not see the current Palestinian leadership as peace partners.  If they did, they would have marked their ballots for Shelly Yacimovich or Tzipi Livni, but they did not.  The overwhelming majority of Israelis even in 2013 remain very skeptical about the Palestinians’ readiness to accept the existence of a Jewish State in the Middle East.  Most of them refuse to drink the Kool-Aid being offered by the academics and intellectuals who frequent the Tel Aviv cafés.

Can you blame them?  They remember the days when the last Labor Party Prime Minister Ehud Barak, was in power, and when he offered Yasser Arafat at Camp David the best deal he could have ever gotten, including a 95 percent Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and their capital in East Jerusalem, how Arafat shocked President Clinton and the rest of the world, by rejecting the offer and bolting the talks.

That was a seminal moment in the life of Israel that every taxi driver and worker in the country has never forgotten — just as they remembered Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the Hamas takeover, and the subsequent campaign of terror and suicide bombings.

Can you blame them for remembering last September’s speech at the UN when President Abbas spoke before the whole world and mentioned only Islam’s and Christianity's profound ties to the Holy Land?   How he deliberately ignored Judaism, the religion with the strongest biblical roots there, and its 3,500-year connection to the land of Israel.  Is that the road to peace?  Is that the way you reach out across the aisle especially when you know that all of Israel is watching you? 

Can you really blame them for refusing to believe in Abbas’ declaration of a two-state solution, when everyone in Israel who reads a newspaper or watches television sees before them not two states, Israel and Palestine, but three States, Israel and two separate Palestinian entities, one in Gaza and another in Ramallah.  One, which continuously calls for Israel’s destruction, and the other in Ramallah, which says they want peace, but, who at the same time is willing to invite Hamas into its Government. 

Of course, the overwhelming majority of Israelis are in favor of a two-state solution, but nobody in Israel would accept two Palestinian states or even a single state where terrorists are part of the government and could one day take control of it.  Can you imagine France or England or any other democracy being asked to do that, let alone a small country surrounded by 22 hostile states?

The lesson that the Palestinian leaders refuse to learn is that their state is not dependent on public opinion in Cairo, nor can it be realized from the podium of the United Nations General Assembly or UNESCO.  Palestinian statehood, whether the Arabs like it or not, is without question inextricably linked to Israeli public opinion.  For so long as the majority of Israelis continue to believe that the Palestinians cannot be trusted as viable peace partners, their dreams for statehood will remain dreams that never came to fruition.

The Palestinian leadership must reverse tactics and embark on an entirely different course.  Rather than continuously making anti-Semitic comments about Jews, preaching hatred of Israelis, and honoring suicide bombers, they need to take the advise of a fellow Muslim, the former Commodore of the Royal Saudi Navy, Abdulateef Al Mulhim, who wrote in the Arab News a few months ago: “The Arab World has many enemies and Israel should have been at the bottom of the list.  The real enemies of the Arab world are corruption, lack of good education, lack of good health care, lack of freedom, lack of respect for the human lives… Israel now has the most advanced research facilities, top universities and advanced infrastructure.  Many Arabs don’t know that the life expectancy of the Palestinians living in Israel is far longer than many Arab states and they enjoy far better political and social freedom than many of their Arab brothers.  Even the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip enjoy more political and social rights than some places in the Arab World.”

When the leadership in Gaza and Ramallah accepts those truths, that will be the day when a Palestinian state will come into being.


Rabbi Marvin Hier is the Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Toloerance.

Israeli voters force Netanyahu to seek centrist partner


Israel's next government must heed voters and devote itself to bread-and-butter issues, not thorny foreign policy problems such as Iran's nuclear plans and the Palestinian conflict, senior politicians said on Thursday.

Israelis worried about housing, prices and taxes have reshaped parliament, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to woo their centrist champion as his main coalition partner.

Final results from the Jan. 22 national election were due later on Thursday, but were not expected to differ significantly from published projections.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said voters had imposed new constraints on the next government.

“It will be much more balanced, probably limited, cannot do whatever it wants and will have to take into account the growing pressure from within to focus on many internal issues,” he told CNN.

Yair Lapid, the surprise success of Tuesday's ballot, stormed to second place with 19 seats in the 120-member assembly against 31 for Netanyahu's alliance of his Likud party ultra-nationalists led by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Formal coalition talks have yet to begin, but Netanyahu and Lapid held a long meeting on Thursday, a Likud statement said.

“The meeting, which lasted two and a half hours, was conducted in a very good atmosphere. Netanyahu and Lapid discussed the challenges facing the country and ways to grapple with them. They agreed to meet again soon,” the statement said.

Netanyahu has swiftly adopted chunks of Lapid's election platform as his own, keen to seal a deal that would create a solid base of 50 seats before drawing in other partners from the right or centre needed for a stable ruling majority.

Lapid said “colour had returned to the cheeks” of Israelis following the vote, adding that he was happy Netanyahu had now embraced his party's themes of “equal sharing of the burden” and helping the middle class, especially with housing and education.

“Equal sharing” is political code for meeting the complaints of secular tax-payers about the concessions given to the ultra-Orthodox, whose menfolk study in Jewish seminaries, often on state stipends, and who are not drafted into the army.

“EQUAL BURDEN”

Lulled by pre-election opinion polls, Netanyahu may have assumed he could coast back to power at the head of a right-wing coalition enthused by his mission to halt Iran's nuclear drive and eager to settle more Jews in the occupied West Bank.

But his Likud party and Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu lost 11 of the seats they had won at the last election in 2009, punished by voters more preoccupied with problems of daily life.

Lieberman said he and Netanyahu shared with Lapid and Naftali Bennett, leader of a new far-right party, the goals of “equal burden, living costs and affordable housing”.

But Lieberman told Army Radio reaching a similar consensus on foreign policy might prove elusive. “We can start with diplomacy, but that will impair the government's functioning,” he said. “This government must focus on domestic issues.”

In its first reaction to the election, the United States, Israel's chief ally, renewed a call for resuming stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, but huge obstacles remain, even if the next Israeli government gains a more moderate flavour.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO executive committee, said Palestinian leaders were watching for change after a vote that had given Israel a “new and different opportunity”.

He told reporters any renewed talks must be based on creating a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 war lines.

“We are not ready to be part of the process of more political theatre or to give cover for government policy which represents the same policies as the last one, while settlements continue and we experience daily killing and repression.”

U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down in 2010 amid mutual acrimony. Since then Israel has accelerated construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – land the Palestinians want for their future state – much to the anger of Western partners.

RAZOR-THIN

Complicating Netanyahu's quest for a workable coalition is the difficulty of reconciling the demands of a dozen factions in parliament, where those on the right hold a razor-thin edge.

Lapid, a former TV anchorman who only founded his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party a year ago, seeks to end exemptions from military service for Israel's 10 percent minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews who also receive generous state benefits.

Those privileges were extracted from successive governments by religious parties such as Shas and the United Torah Party in exchange for their backing. The two parties have a combined total of 18 seats in parliament, and Netanyahu is likely to want to include at least one of them for a broad-based coalition.

He may also turn to the hardline Jewish Home group led by his former protege Bennett, a millionaire software entrepreneur, which won a projected 12 seats. A Likud spokeswoman said Netanyahu called Bennett to congratulate him but did not reveal details of their conversation.

“Jewish Home can certainly be one of the desired partners in the new coalition,” Likud lawmaker Zeev Elkin told Israel Radio.

However, Bennett has denounced the idea of Palestinian statehood and advocates annexing swathes of the West Bank, putting him at odds with Lapid, who wants “divorce” talks with the Palestinians to end the decades-old Middle East conflict.

The Labour party, which came third with 15 seats after putting economic and social issues at the forefront of its campaign, not the Middle East peacemaking it once championed, has vowed not to join any Netanyahu-led coalition.

Once official results are announced on Jan. 30, President Shimon Peres will ask someone, almost certainly Netanyahu, to try to form a government, a process that may take several weeks.

Reporting by Jerusalem bureau; Editing by Peter Graff and Giles Elgood

Israeli markets cheer centrists’ election gains


Israeli markets rose on Wednesday on investor hopes that the outcome of the previous day's election means Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister and ultra-Orthodox parties have no role in government.

The blue-chip Tel Aviv 25 index rose 1 percent to 1,204.65 points, near last week's year-high of 1,225.76, while the broader TA-100 index closed 0.9 percent higher.

Government bond prices gained as much as 0.5 percent and the shekel appreciated 0.4 percent to 3.722 per dollar from Monday's fixing of 3.738, near a 10-month peak.

“We will enjoy this for a few days,” said Zach Herzog, head of foreign sales at the Psagot brokerage. “The downside will be if the coalition talks drag on or if we see Labour or (ultra-Orthodox) Shas in serious talks to get involved.

“This can be a launching pad for a positive 2013,” he added.

Herzog said a coalition government more centrist than Netanyahu's current right-wing and religious administration would be better placed to impose needed budget cuts.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have traditionally demanded budget-draining state subsidies for their institutions in return for joining coalitions in Israel, where no one party has ever won a parliamentary majority on its own.

Results of Tuesday's parliamentary vote showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud-Beitenu group emerging on top with 31 of parliament's 120 seats, albeit dropping sharply from the current 42 after voters shifted support to centrists focusing on Israelis' rising cost of living.

Yesh Atid, a new centrist party that has pledged to ease the burden of Israel's middle class, took 19 seats, one more than the number won by ultra-Orthodox parties.

If Yesh Atid's leader, former TV news anchor Yair Lapid, opts to join a Netanyahu coalition, along with the far-right Jewish Home party, the prime minister would likely control 61 seats, giving him a narrow parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu, however, has said he hopes to form as broad a government as possible, signaling the way was open for ultra-Orthodox factions to participate.

BUDGET DEFICIT

Netanyahu's reputations as a skilled economic operator was harmed just before the election when data showed Israel posted a budget deficit of 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 – more than double its initial target.

To meet a target of 3 percent in 2013, the government – which overspent heavily the past two years to keep its previous coalition partners happy – will have to find some 15 billion shekels ($4 billion) of cuts, as well as raising taxes.

Credit agency Fitch forecast the deficit reaching 3.8 percent of GDP this year, saying the stable outlook on its 'A' rating risked being downgraded in the event of “serious fiscal slippage”.

But a move towards the government's 60 percent debt-to-GDP target could result in positive ratings action, its sovereign ratings director Paul Gamble said in a report on Wednesday.

He also said the coalition talks would focus on budgetary issues and likely be time-consuming.

Psagot's Herzog said the market was also pleased that the centre-left Labour Party, whose leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has railed against capitalism during the election campaign, received just 15 seats, a poor than expected showing.

“In addition to the positive result that Netanyahu was re-elected as prime minister, you have a significant blow to the prestige to the anti-business candidate,” Herzog said.

A currency dealer at a large Israeli bank said most of Wednesday's dollar selling came from local rather than offshore customers. He said there was still a way for the dollar to fall before its next support level at 3.7050 shekels.

According to financial information services firm Markit, Israeli five-year credit default swaps – which insure against debt default – edged up 125 basis points from 123 on Monday. They had been at 156 basis points in November when military tensions escalated in the Gaza Strip.

Additional reporting by Tova Cohen and Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, John Stonestreet

Meet Bill


What was that all about?

Those on the left will say the recall election we just survived was a sneaky Republican power grab. Those on the right will say it was a citizen revolt against a sleazy and ineffectual governor.

Those in the middle will say, “Are we done yet?”

It’s not clear, this early on, who wins and who loses in this process. If Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeds in balancing the state budget while improving California’s business climate, educational system and environment — just as he promised — then we all win.

If Schwarzenegger finds himself mired in a spite-filled Sacramento and unwilling to face down some of his own party in making the tough economic decisions, then he loses — and we lose.

Going into this recall, I felt a sense of general unease that many centrist Jews shared.

Some Jews might have looked askance at an Austrian native seeking to grab power in a rushed election at a time of social upheaval — hmm, where have we seen that before? — but I wasn’t one of them. Those who opposed Arnold politically tried to use his Austrian roots against him, taking his Hitler comments out of context to pander to certain ethnic groups and plastering the Westside with “Achtung Baby” posters. It all came off as desperate, cheap and xenophobic. Arnold indeed needed to come clean in his own words on his friendship with former Nazi Kurt Waldheim, not as a sign that he was no Nazi himself, but as an indication that he was someone who could acknowledge poor judgment and move on. (He finally did express regret, to Jewish Journal Associate Editor Adam Wills.)

My recall dread had nothing to do with Arnold’s past, and everything to do with California’s present. There may be a Jewish genetic predisposition against chaos, because so often, throughout history, Jews have either been the victims in a chaotic society, or been blamed for creating it in the first place. What Jews spark to, said the Israeli writer Amos Oz in a different context, is “fervid moderation” (see Stuart Schoffman’s story, p. 20). Jews thrive in an open, tolerant and stable political culture, and the recall seemed to be the harbinger of California-as-banana-republic.

The recall itself was a product of the political extremes.

“I choke with disgust over the behavior of this legislature and the governor — especially over the last 76 days — but I can’t see a happy end to this exercise,” urban planner David Abel wrote in an e-mail to a recall proponent. “[Commentator] Jill Stewart and talk radio are angry; SEIU and CTA are angry; much of the voting public is angry … but how are the folks you hold a brief for — the middle class — going to be better off as a result of the vote count tonight? Sending a message from California that the rules can be broken at the whim of a millionaire … doesn’t seem to move us toward a meaningful resolution of our challenges.”

Republicans, it seems, will buck the status quo to get power, but rarely innovate once they’re in power. Democrats are conservative, even reactionary, in their methods of acquiring power (hence the fancy moral outrage over the recall, the Florida recount, etc.), but more willing to exercise it to change the status quo.

Pundits who read a permanent Jewish migration toward the Republican Party into the recall results are off the mark here. How sad if a knee-jerk Democratic bloc were to become a knee-jerk Republican one. Davis failed voters and faced the music. The revolt was not against a party or an ideology, but against poor leadership — and that’s a bipartisan plague.

Where does Arnold stand in all this? Those who know him say he is no ideologue.

“He’s a genuine centrist,” a government official who has known Arnold for years told me. “He genuinely likes people. He has stayed loyal to friends he has known since childhood, and that’s a source of strength to him. He’s a very rooted and decent person. He’s not centrist [just] because that’s how you can win elections. In that respect, he reminds me more of Bill Clinton.”

That’s it. That’s why Schwarzenegger received 20 percent or more of the Democratic vote, and why even voters like me, who opposed the recall for the sturm und drang it portended, are open to seeing where this administration takes us. A Republican who makes a point of appearing on election night in front of a row of Democratic Shrivers, a Republican who dares not come across as holier-than-thou when it comes to issues of sex and drugs, a Republican who has the mandate and the money to break with the ideologues in his own party when need be — that Republican might just be the kind of fervid moderate we need.

+