Israeli election pits not just left vs. right, but Tel Aviv vs. Jerusalem

In the wake of Israel’s parliamentary election on Tuesday, much has been said about whether the “left” gained ground against the “right.” Some pundits have even argued that conservatives, lead by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shed a significant number of seats and are now in a dead heat with liberals. But that’s an American way of looking at things. A more useful way to view the election is as a victory of Tel Aviv — and its young, tech-savvy work force — over ultra-religious voters in Jerusalem. At the least, this development looks far healthier for the country’s politics than the widely anticipated victory of a coalition of religious parties and hard-liners.

The surprisingly strong showing of political newcomer Yair Lapid, the anchor of a highly rated Friday night news show, was only a surprise because pollsters relied on land-line surveys that missed the cellphone-only generation that makes up the backbone of Lapid’s support. Lapid campaigned on a platform of ending special treatment for the ultra-Orthodox, who are exempted from military service and who often raise large families on public subsidies. This is a huge political issue that previous generations of Israeli politicians have avoided for decades. A key battle over Israel’s future is about to begin.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Lapid’s rising political star will have an immediate effect on the prospects for peace with Palestinians, a critical issue for the United States. Lapid appears likely to be a junior partner in a coalition government led by Netanyahu. And while Lapid, a secular centrist, favors a two-state solution, he still opposes the kind of compromises that Israel would have to make to bring one about, such as allowing East Jerusalem to become capital of a Palestinian state. The election result, then, preserves an unsatisfying status quo.


Still, Lapidis far more promising as a potential peacemaker than Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home Party, who has pledged to do whatever it takes to prevent the Palestinians from getting a state. Bennett, not Lapid, was expected to be the big winner in this week’s election. But his party only took 11 seats, compared to 19 for Lapid’s party. Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, summarizes the message sent by a significant chunk of Israel’s electorate like this: “We are centrists, and we are not going to allow the extreme right to form a narrow majority.”

Peace with Palestinians may not be a top priority for Israel’s young cellphone generation. But the shift in the center of gravity toward these voters — rather than toward hard-liners or toward religious voters who see Israeli-occupied territories as land given by God only to the Jewish people — offers a measure of hope to those who wish to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved.