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January 23, 2013, Wednesday

Israel’s newcomers’ parliament

Israel's parliamentary election revealed one thing: The Israelis are not happy with the old players and they are looking for new faces and new projects in politics. A great winner in this search of new faces is the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party of former journalist Yair Lapid. His party is less than six months old and there were no established politicians in its list of candidates, yet the party won 19 seats in the new parliament, coming second after the Likud-Beyteinu coalition.

Yesh Atid is new to Israeli politics for many reasons. Its election campaign was based not on a utopian solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but on social and educational issues. The Lapid Program suggested universal military service for all Israelis, a complete change of the governmental system and the matriculation program. With all these policy orientations, Lapid's party sounds like a left-wing one. However, within the last weeks of the electoral campaign Lapid endorsed a policy of exclusion towards the Palestinians and a new Middle East with no meaningful contact between the Israelis and the Arabs. Lapid declared that he had no intention of joining forces with the Labor Party or Kadima, the other two center-left parties, and hence killed any prospective left-wing coalitions that can oust Benjamin Netanyahu from power.

Lapid's party will become critical in the coalition negotiations and he will certainly ask for a secular coalition. Given the fact that in 2012 the Likud Party tried to pass two bills to prevent ex-journalists running for a parliamentary seat within one year of their resignation as journalists, though, we can expect Lapid to give Netanyahu's coalition bargaining team a hard time.

Another newcomer to Israeli politics is Naftali Bennett's HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home), which won 11 seats, a little less than what the surveys predicted and yet highly promising for Bennett's political future. Bennett is an energetic version of Netanyahu and may yet make his mark on Israel's history. The Bennett Plan that was disclosed before the elections suggests the annexation of certain Palestinian territories by Israel, the annexation of Gaza by Egypt and the creation of a Palestinian state without speaking to the Palestinians.

Lapid is a longtime public figure and he is predictable. Bennett, on the other hand, is a businessman who loves taking risks. There are claims that he believes in the coming of the Messiah and builds his policies on a teleological understanding of history -- taking upon himself the duty of preparing the stepping stones of the future Kingdom of Israel. On the other hand, he sounds more pragmatic than Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister of Israel, whose post Bennett should be coveting in a possible coalition his party will take part in.

The question is whether these two parties are there to stay or not. If they are, we may see the classic Labor-Likud dichotomy, and the corresponding socialist-liberal Zionist distinctions replaced by egalitarian and religious Zionist distinctions.

The final results of the election show that the Israeli public is looking for strong and new voices in the center left. Only the fact that the Labor Party won 15 seats, despite its leadership change and identity crisis, suggests that the Israeli public is ready to support comprehensive peace plans. This, of course, promises a zone of opportunity for renewed relations between Turkey and Israel.

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