“There is a future” (Yesh Atid) is not a bad name for this party with no past: every one of the newly elected MKs is new to national politics. Israel has taken a step toward citizen government.
Explaining Israeli election results to an American audience is always a challenge. But this time, that challenge is compounded by having to explain the explanations. Even by famously contentious Israeli standards, interpretations of the results are all over the map.
According to respected political analysts, this election was a crushing defeat for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose own party suffered a loss of 25% of its Knesset representation. Or it was a solid vote of confidence for Netanyahu, as he will remain prime minister of a coalition potentially stronger than before.
This election was a huge victory for secular Israel. And the incoming Knesset will have the most religious representation ever. The country moved to the right. The country moved left. The center is now stronger. The extremes are stronger.
The security hawks, skeptical of the Palestinian Authority’s “peace process” intentions, won the day. So did those demanding a return to the negotiating table.
This election was really about economic issues. Of course, as in every Israeli election, national security was the voters’ primary concern. Clearly, the election was driven primarily by religious-secular divisions.
Why such contradictory analyses of this election? Because YeshAtid (“There is a future”), a brand new party, came from nowhere to become the second largest party in the Knesset. It now sits at the fulcrum of Israel’s political power. And no one can be sure just what of make of it, or whether it will push the government to the right or the left.
The party is an interesting amalgam of diverse newcomers. Its centrist platform is popular, but thin on details. As such, it is a wild card, a political Rorschach test in which every analyst can find whatever he seeks. Of course, uncertainty of how this party will operate doesn’t stop the self-declared political oracles from making categorical pronouncements about the new political alignment and its meaning.
In fairness to the pundits scrambling to provide coherent interpretations, Israel has never seen anything quite like YeshAtid before. Unlike previous new parties, it is neither aimed at any special interest group, nor led by a former general striking out on his own, nor by a lifelong politician breaking away from his old party. It is led, rather, by a celebrity journalist and author, Yair Lapid.
“There is a future” is not a bad name for this party with no past: every one of the newly elected MKs is new to national politics. Lapid hand-picked a wide-ranging candidate list with an eye toward appealing to a broad cross-section of Israel’s population.
Thus, it is balanced — between left-leaning and right-leaning, between men and women, between black and white (two of the new Knesset members are Ethiopian immigrants), and between religious and secular (two are outside-the-box Orthodox rabbis, one of whom, Dov Lipman, is American). One MK is a former police chief. Another is a former judo champion. Yet another is a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s FBI. With the arguable exception of two small-town mayors (one town wealthy, one town poor), none have held prominent elective office. How does one categorize such a faction?
William F. Buckley once said, “I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.” It’s quite possible that the Israeli electorate just said something similar: with YeshAtid, and they’ve taken a step toward citizen government.
The Israeli electoral system has an unfortunate tendency to foster political ossification, with too many of the same old retreads and professional politicians rotating in and out of Knesset. They are joined by assorted outspoken retired generals, each considering himself Israel’s foremost expert on security, yet having radically different approaches from one another.
YeshAtid represents a Buckley-esque shift by Israeli voters away from deference to political careerists and generals, replacing them with apparently capable regular civilians unsullied by past politics. In theory, that should be something to celebrate.
Sadly, as refreshing as that sounds, it won’t necessarily make Israel’s coalition politics operate any more smoothly. All that diversity represented in Lapid’s movement may be appealing, but YeshAtid will likely never be as popular as it is right now, before it actually votes on anything. Political purity perishes as soon as it encounters actual political activity and compromise.
These disparate legislators all owe party loyalty to Lapid, the leader who brought them this far. But Lapid may now find it impossible to manage all that independence, integrity, and differing opinion he’s assembled. How does one enforce party discipline against a group with such different — and often contradictory — agendas? And if these legislators do put aside certain principles for the sake of party, what happens to their uncorrupted image and reasons they were put in Knesset to begin with?
An ideologically diverse party is an ideologically divided party. And a party divided against itself will have to withstand entrenched rivals courting its members and tempting them to bolt. Lapid, a smart and persuasive man, may manage to keep his new-style party intact by convincing all to set aside their individual causes in the name of broader priorities. But having as little political experience as the faction of freshmen he’ll try to keep in line, he’ll face long odds and strong centrifugal forces.
The ascent of YeshAtid is a bold experiment by Israel’s voters, and has many feeling optimistic. If Lapid is successful, it will truly change the face of Israeli politics. Empowering uncorrupted, non-career legislators is a healthy development for any self-governing people. In theory.
In reality, however, no one knows how this experiment will work out, or even how long it can survive. Not the pundits. Not the country. Not the party. Not even YairLapid.