Middle East

Israel’s election surprise

A new party led by a populist new-comer has got elected two Israelis of Ethiopian origin. What will be next is a curious case

Ran HaCohen (PhD), Middle East Correspondent


The military attack on Gaza last November, what I called here “Operation unseat Barak “, ended in yet another Israeli victory – if you ask the Israeli on the street that is; indeed the results of the January 22nd general election show that the big fiasco led to Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s retirement, at least for the time being.     

The election brought with it two surprises:  though, predictably, Netanyahu’s Party emerged as the biggest, it disappointed loyal voters with merely 31 seats; followed, again unexpectedly, by “Yesh  Atid”  (literally translated as “There’s Future”), a brand new party that impressively gained 19 of the 120 Knesset (Israeli Parliament) seats.  “Yesh Atid” is led by populist Ya’ir Lapid, 49, a columnist, journalist, novelist, television talent, actor, poet, even boxer if you like, and, last but not least, son of the late populist politician Yosef Lapid. Big words like opinions and views are wasted on Lapid junior. The fresh politician, well-known to every Israeli from his long media career, has been quoted counting Copernicus as a philosopher in ancient Greece, Giacometti as a renaissance artist, and even attributed the American Constitution to John Adams.

If such trivia mistakes might be forgiven (though publishing them without minimal fact-checking speaks volumes), the following ignorance cannot: shortly before the elections, asked about his solution for the 30,000 Eritreans seeking refuge in Israel, Lapid suggested “opening a liaison office” in Eritrea to negotiate their repatriation. Let alone the contradiction to the international ban on repatriation to Eritrea, by suggesting a “liaison office” Lapid was clearly unaware of the fact that Israel maintains full diplomatic (not to say comprehensive Military) relations with the Eritrean dictator, including an Israeli embassy in Asmara & something a politician who openly aspires to the Prime Minister’s seat should have known long before opening his mouth on this hot issue.

Lapid may not have any views in the full sense of the word; but he does have sentiments instead. Though he played the “centre” card in his campaign, positioning his party in-between the right and “the extreme left” (as he termed the   Labor Party), his sentiments are consistently hard-line nationalist.  Having launched his election campaign in the illegal Jewish West-Bank settlement of “Ariel”, in his first politic utterance after the election, asked about joining a centre-left parliamentary bloc against Netanyahu, Lapid ruled out making any bloc with what he contemptuously termed “the Zoabis” – referring to the Israeli-Arab Knesset  Member Haneen Zoabi, or to her party, or to the Arab parties as a whole. Later on he suggested PM Olmert’s offers to the Palestinians “had gone too far”; the whole far-right arsenal of anti-Arab racism and anti-Palestinian rejectionism.

My own surprise at Lapid, though, was not his nationalism but rather the fact that his party managed to get elected two Israelis of Ethiopian origin: lawyer and journalist Mrs. Pnina Tamano-Shata, and social activist Mr. Shimon Solomon, born in Gondar and Tigray regions respectively. This is quite surprising for a party that has attracted mostly upper middle-class voters, where hardly any Ethiopian families can be found. Despite his own mediocrity, though, Lapid did surround himself by several impressive characters – like the brilliant journalist Ofer Shelah, successful mayor Yael German, and a couple of others.

Indeed, Lapid has made sure his party remains his own: its constitution gives far-reaching authority to its leader, who cannot be replaced until 2020; liberal democratic slogans are good for the public, but there are other rules at home.

While the coalition negotiations are still underway:  having ruled out a centre-left bloc against Netanyahu, Lapid now joins forces with  the far right and bargains vis-a-vis Netanyahu together with the ultra-nationalist  “Jewish Home” party.

But no matter how these negotiations end (and in all likelihood, Lapid’s party would find itself in Netanyahu’s new coalition), it’s  left to be seen whether the voices of Lapid’s fraction members would be heard, or whether the dwarf would manage to silence the giants surrounding him.


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