The Making of Israel's New Power Broker

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Correction Appended

TEL AVIV -- They pitched tents along Rothschild Boulevard and took to the streets in unprecedented numbers, hundreds of thousands demonstrating against the rising costs of gas, apartments, even cottage cheese.

Back on the genteel boulevard on Wednesday, many of those middle-class protesters from 2011 said they had taken their grievances to the ballot box the day before, helping to catapult Yair Lapid, a suave, handsome journalist-turned-populist-politician, into Israel's newest power broker.

"He spoke out the strongest about how everything in this country is upside down," said Elad Shoshan, 28, who works with computers and rents an apartment on a cheaper street off the boulevard.

Echoing his candidate's mantra, Roni Klein, 52, an accountant, said, "My wife and I work, and still it is very hard for us to finish the month."

Mr. Lapid's new, centrist Yesh Atid party shocked the political establishment by winning 19 of Parliament's 120 seats, becoming Israel's second-largest faction and a crucial partner for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose relatively poor showing left him scrambling to form a stable coalition.

While Mr. Netanyahu remains all but assured of serving a third term -- Mr. Lapid said Wednesday that he would not unite with Arab lawmakers to stop him -- Yesh Atid's ascendance promises to shift the government's focus to pocketbook concerns despite the pressing foreign policy issues Israel faces.

Mr. Lapid's campaign hardly challenged Mr. Netanyahu's policies on the Iranian nuclear threat, the tumult in the Arab world or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was the first election in memory in which such existential security issues were not emphasized, as a growing majority of Israelis see them as too tough to tackle. Even Mr. Netanyahu barely spoke about Iran, his raison d'être.

Instead, voters and analysts alike said Mr. Lapid had captured the hearts of Israel's silent majority with his personal charm and a positive, inclusive message that harnessed the everyday frustrations that fueled the huge social justice protests in 2011.

One pollster found that about 40 percent of Mr. Lapid's supporters defined themselves as right-leaning, and in Israel's coalition system, many saw his success as a tactical move by voters not to oust Mr. Netanyahu but to nudge him to broaden the agenda.

On Wednesday, the prime minister embraced Mr. Lapid's platform, promising a government "as broad as possible" that would bring change on three fronts: affordable housing, government reform and forcing ultra-Orthodox Jews to "share the burden" of military service and taxes.

Some saw the results as a victory for secular Jews at a time of conflict with the ultra-Orthodox over resources and religious pluralism. Mr. Lapid's stronghold was here in coastal Tel Aviv and its bourgeois suburbs, where he won about 1 in 4 votes cast, and Modiin, a fast-growing bedroom community halfway between here and Jerusalem.

Tamar Hermann, a political scientist and vice president of Israel's Open University, called Mr. Lapid "the epitome of the Israeli dream" and described his voters as "the mainstream of the mainstream."

"This is the kind of voting you can take your kids to and teach them a lesson in civic fulfillment without taking any risks," Professor Hermann said. "They are complaining, but this is a kind of the zeitgeist, not real agony, not real suffering, not real dissatisfaction with the basic cornerstone of the system. It's just polishing here and there."

The election results were widely seen as a rebuke to the status quo, but not necessarily a call for change in approach to contentious questions like what to do about the Palestinians. While Mr. Lapid has called for a return to negotiations, he shares Mr. Netanyahu's skepticism about the lack of a partner, saying this week, "I don't think the Arabs want peace." He opposes division of Jerusalem and made his foreign policy speech in Ariel, a sprawling Jewish settlement 12 miles into the West Bank that the Palestinians see as problematic for the viability of their state.

"The majority of Israelis came to the conclusion that there will be no new Middle East," Mr. Lapid said over cappuccino here last month. "What we want is not a happy marriage, but a decent divorce."

Instead, the change voters were seeking was more about the nature of politics itself.

"A lot of people are voting the way you invest in an Internet start-up," said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based political consultant. "The C.E.O.'s have no experience, don't always have a business plan, but people say, 'What the hell, this is going to be the new Google, the new Facebook.' Some of those start-ups make it, some don't -- it's more of a gut feeling than looking at something and saying this makes sense."

Ayasha Gavriel Rosenthal, 61, said she "chose Lapid because I was looking for a leader who is humane," then added, "I also like that he looks terrific."

Mr. Lapid was not the only fresh face: another newcomer to do well was Naftali Bennett, whose religious-nationalist Jewish Home party won 11 seats. None of the 19 people elected from Mr. Lapid's Yesh Atid have ever served in Parliament, which will have its largest contingent of new lawmakers -- more than 50.

"Think about a business corporation that replaces half of the whole management team every few years," said Yedidia Z. Stern, a vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute. "You see a vacuum, and people are looking to fill it up with a new carrier -- not a new idea but a new carrier of the Israeli agenda."

Mr. Lapid benefited from a series of strategic moves -- some say errors -- by his opponents, and from Israel's electoral system, in which voters sophisticated about politics try to use their ballots strategically to influence the makeup of the governing coalition.

Mr. Netanyahu's decision to join forces for the campaign with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu faction virtually assured his victory; 81 percent of the public said in a November poll that they were confident he would serve another term -- leaving some of his supporters feeling freer to shop around.

Avivit Cohen, a medical secretary, said that she, her husband, their three grown children and their spouses had always voted for Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party. But this time, the younger generation, professionals who cannot afford to buy apartments, persuaded her to back Mr. Lapid. "They think that with him in the government, perhaps they will have a future," said Ms. Cohen, 52, playing off his party's name, Hebrew for There Is a Future.

While the Labor Party actually recruited leaders of the social protest movement as candidates, many middle-class voters rejected its socioeconomic platform as too costly in the face of a $10 billion deficit. And when Labor's leader announced she would not join a Netanyahu-led coalition, some saw voting for the party as a wasted ballot.

"I think most of us who voted for Yesh Atid did it out of a pragmatic approach, hoping the party would enter the coalition and make a difference from within," said Zvi Rabinovich, 28, who lives in Tel Aviv and works for a start-up.

Stephan H. Miller, a pollster and political strategist, attributed Mr. Lapid's surprise surge -- polls published last week indicated he would win 10 or 11 seats -- to a "huge" contingent of undecided voters breaking for him in the final days. Mr. Miller said that 43 percent of the likely voters he surveyed a month ago named economic issues as their top priority, and that Mr. Lapid had the strongest favorable ratings of any candidate among the 36 percent of voters who identified themselves as centrists.

Noga Aloni, 31, a bank clerk, said she only chose Yesh Atid the night before, after reading the party's platform on the Internet.

"I felt I had to do something, find someone to vote for," she said, adding that Mr. Lapid "has more credibility because he's new to politics. He has not been corrupted yet."

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.

Correction: January 24, 2013, Thursday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article overstated the scope of Yair Lapid's popularity in a poll conducted by Stephan H. Miller, a pollster. He said Mr. Lapid had the strongest favorability ratings of any candidate among the 36 percent of likely voters who identified themselves as centrists, not among likely voters generally.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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