Few expect Yair Lapid will replace Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister

January 23, 2013

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks in Tel Aviv. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Two of the biggest stories out of Tuesday's Israeli election, so far, are the weakening of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the surprising success of a centrist party called Yesh Atid.

When Israel's political parties move to form a new governing coalition, then, could Netanyahu be replaced by a centrist politician? If he were, the obvious candidate would be Yesh Atid's leader, a charismatic former TV host named Yair Lapid. But few Israeli political observers seem to think this is going to happen.

Most analysts seem to suspect that Yesh Atid will join with Netanyahu's Likud party to form a governing coalition, meaning that Lapid could be given a senior position in the government. The Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg, summing up the conventional wisdom, writes, "I'm assuming, for now, a Likud-Yesh Atid-Jewish Home coalition, but anything is possible." (More on Jewish Home, a far-right, pro-settler party, here.)

So why do so many analyst believe that Lapid will not make a run for the prime minister's job? Ha'aretz has an explainer, but this post from blogger Dimi Reider puts it succinctly:

Theoretically (or rather, purely arithmetically), Lapid is now in a position to make a bold bid for premiership. Although earlier attempts to herd the centre-leftist cats into a unified bloc ahead of the elections failed miserably, the tantalisingly small gap between the Left and Right in the exit polls could give Lapid enough of a momentum – to hammer together a centre-left government of small parties, to persuade Shas to switch sides (by reminding them they’d hold much more sway in such a fractured coalition than in a strong right-wing one), and to solicit the external support of Arab parties (among which Hadash is usually lumped), eventually creating something akin to [former Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s government in 1992. But, to the tune of “you are no Jack Kennedy,” Lapid is no Rabin, and 2013 is not 1993. Lapid is risk-averse and lacks a political program or vision; while the negotiated two-state process, a novel idea in Rabin’s time, has been tested and failed in the 21 years since. What’s more, hostility towards the Arab parties is immeasurably greater than it was in the 1990s. Any party overpowering the Right with these parties’ support will be seen as an usurper. Lapid may well launch a bid for premiership – but this is likely to be a negotiation ploy designed to mark him as not just a coalition member, but a partner in a “national unity” government, a title with considerably more clout and gravitas.

In other words, for Lapid to become prime minister, he would have to put together a wide coalition of some very disparate Israeli political parties. This might not be possible. I've seen some analysts argue that it would be particularly difficult for Lapid to form a coalition because his party has made a big deal out of requiring Israel's ultra-Orthodox to serve in the military. Right now, many ultra-Orthodox enjoy a religious exemption from mandatory military service. But ultra-Orthodox political parties are quite powerful, and it's difficult to imagine them joining with Lapid's party.

(In case you don't know how coalition politics work, Israel's multi-party system means that there are lots of small parties from all over the spectrum, but no single party that is large enough to win a majority. For the government to function, several parties have to join together in a coalition that represents at least half of the national legislature. This is referred to as "forming a government" and it includes lots of deal-cutting between the parties.)

The Times of Israel, in a long profile of Lapid, suggested that his probable inability to lead a governing coalition represents what some Israelis see as the great weakness of centrist parties: despite all their popular support, they can't seem to lead the country. "To critics, the party is about egotism and is seen as a manifestation of the inability of the center-left’s various personalities to join up to create a super-faction that could challenge Netanyahu," the Times of Israel writes. "It’s a party of empty rhetoric that will make little noise in the Knesset."

But maybe Lapid will prove us all wrong.

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Max Fisher · January 22, 2013