January 23, 2013: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv. Reuters/Nir Elias
The story of the Israeli elections is not, as was expected, the dominance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud-Beiteinu coalition with former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Instead, it is the unlikely triumph of Yair Lapid, a media celebrity who managed to secure nineteen seats in the next Knesset, making his newly formed Yesh Atid, or There Is a Future, the second-largest party in Israel. In the coming days, Lapid will play a pivotal role in the formation of the next governing coalition, and he is certain to receive a ministerial role in any future administration.
The results were a stinging rebuke to Netanyahu, who had expected over forty seats and wound up with only thirty-one. But what do they mean for the status quo of the Israeli occupation and the slow-motion dispossession of the Palestinians? Lapid has been cast in mainstream US media accounts as a “centrist,” a label that carries moderate connotations. According to the Washington Post, his success could “signal more flexibility in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.” But Lapid is, in fact, a politically vague media celebrity presiding over a party comprising random figures he personally selected—“as much a mystery as the future the party claims to be fighting for,” as the Times of Israel described him. As a potential coalition partner, the vapid broadcast personality seems like a perfect tool for Netanyahu; he is far more refined than Lieberman, who has consistently verged on bellicose incitement, but has no clear ideological core.
What’s more, Lapid has offered scant evidence that he views the Palestinian issue any differently than Netanyahu does. When he unveiled his foreign policy platform last year, Lapid chose to do so at a university inside the illegal mega-settlement of Ariel. Israel “must at last get rid of the Palestinians and put a fence between us,” he declared, explaining that he chose to launch his campaign at the settlement because “there is no map on which Ariel isn’t a part of the state of Israel.” Like Netanyahu, he says he strongly opposes the division of Jerusalem, an implicit rejection of the international consensus for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. (The Labor Party, which won fifteen seats and is generally labeled center-left, also supports annexing the major settlement blocs.)
In a 2007 column for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonoth, Lapid insisted that ending the occupation would mean certain death for himself and fellow Israeli Jews. He wrote, “It may be true that the humane thing is to remove the roadblocks and checkpoints, to stop the occupation immediately, to enable the Palestinians freedom of movement in the territories, to tear down the bloody inhumane wall, to promise them the basic rights ensured to every individual. It’s just that I will end up paying for this with my life.… Call me a weakling; call me thickheaded—I don’t want to die.”