Mark Weiss in Jerusalem
As a dramatic week draws to a close, analysts in Israel are still trying to work out the ramifications of Tuesday’s election, which saw a significant drop in support for prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the emergence of Yair Lapid, head of the new centrist Yesh Atid, as the new kingmaker of Israeli politics.
The final tally of seats, after the counting of soldiers’ votes, gave an extra seat to the far-right Jewish Home and one less to a small Arab party, shifting the balance 61-59 in favour of the more hawkish right-wing, religious bloc.
Israelis, and particularly the younger generation, voted for change, although Mr Netanyahu will still form the next government.
Yesh Atid (19 seats) and Jewish Home (12), led by Naftali Bennett, both took votes from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu list (31), and are both almost certain to be in the new coalition, expected to be formed in late February.
These parties both support a free-market economy and forcing the growing ultra-Orthodox community to either serve in the military or perform community service, referred to in Israel as “sharing the burden”. However, they disagree on the peace process.
Mr Lapid supports renewing peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Mr Bennett says he has no objections to peace talks as such, but he believes there is no chance of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Jewish Home, which received massive support from settlers, advocates annexing the 60 per cent of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli control.
Sources from both Likud and Yesh Atid confirmed that Mr Netanyahu offered Mr Lapid any portfolio he chooses in the next government, including one of the top three: defence, finance or foreign affairs.
Because he lacks any military expertise, and didn’t serve in a combat unit during his compulsory military service, Mr Lapid will not take the defence portfolio.
The treasury would be a good opportunity for Mr Lapid to implement Yesh Atid’s economic agenda of easing the burden on the middle classes. However, the position is considered somewhat of a poisoned chalice as the incoming minister will have to introduce a sweeping austerity budget with significant cuts.
If he decides to become Israel’s next foreign minister, Mr Lapid will likely breathe new life into the peace process. Peace talks reached an impasse before Mr Netanyahu came into office four years ago and never resumed in earnest.
Former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said he would be willing to give up the foreign ministry portfolio, but he suggested the new government should not prioritise diplomatic efforts.
“If we want to founder from the outset, and embark upon endless internal struggles, then make foreign policy the top priority,” he said.
The boost for the moderate camp in Israel prompted Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to declare that he will invite Israeli politicians to the West Bank to make sure peacemaking is on the new government’s agenda. Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo said representatives of Israeli parties would be invited before the new coalition is formed.