TEL AVIV — If you read The New Yorker, you might have seen 9000 words from David Remnick about how Israeli politics is being taken over by right-wing crazies, led by Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. If you don’t read The New Yorker, congratulations: You didn’t waste your time.
The big story of the election is the strong showing by Yesh Atid, a new centrist party led by former journalist and TV host Yair Lapid. Benjamin Netanyahu will, as expected, be prime minister again, but Yesh Atid will be the second-largest party in the next Knesset, and is likely to be invited into Netanyahu’s coalition. We don’t have the final breakdown of the Knesset yet, but an ideologically diverse (and therefore unstable) coalition, including not only Lapid but parties to his left, is quite possible. So much for the swing to right-wing extremism.
But it would be a mistake to overread the result as a swing to the left on the issues that non-Israelis focus on, like Iran or West Bank settlement policy; this was a campaign that was focused, to larger degree than usual, on domestic issues. Along with economic issues, there’s controversy over the special treatment of the Haredim (the so-called ultra-Orthodox), including their exemption from military service, which Lapid seeks to reform; it’s an issue that came to a head for legal reasons last year, and one on which Nethanyahu’s current governing coalition has been hamstrung by its dependence on Haredi parties.
That was among the concerns cited by my right-leaning cab driver this morning (I know, I know — this is a justly-derided cliche of lazy journalism, but indulge me for a minute), when he was still undecided, torn between Netanyahu, Bennett, and Lapid. I don’t know how he voted, but he was hardly unique; pollster Stephan Miller, speaking to reporters at an event here hosted by The Israel Project and the Government Press Office, emphasized an unusually large number of undecided voters late in the campaign. It would seem that many of those undecideds broke to Lapid’s party, and (in part because polling is banned in the final few days before the election), it came as quite a surprise to many observers. Especially New Yorker readers.