CNN: Israel’s Elections Confound Critics, an Op-Ed by TIP CEO Josh Block

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By Josh Block, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Josh Block is CEO & president of the Israel Project, a 501c3 nonpartisan organization based in Washington D.C.  A former Clinton administration official at USAID, Block was also a member of the senior staff at AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby. You can follow him @JoshBlockDC. The views expressed are his own.

The months leading up to yesterday’s Israeli election were filled with confident forecasting. Israeli voters, analysts told us, were turning rightward and even losing confidence in the Jewish state's democratic institutions. Voter turnout would slouch toward all-time lows, and remaining voters would empower a government that was, depending on a pundit’s particular verve, “hardline,” “extremist,” “ultra-nationalist,” – or even worse.

Israeli voters, however, had other ideas. And now many of those pundits are expressing surprise at the turnout and composition of Israel’s 19th Knesset.

By the time polls closed last night, two-thirds of Israeli voters had cast their ballots, exceeding the last election's turnout after inching toward levels not seen in over a decade and a half. The Israeli public – caricatured on the eve of the election by one far-left voice as "sleepy, complacent and apathetic" – turned out to be far more engaged than many had imagined.  Admirers of Israel’s boisterous democratic culture had every reason to feel buoyed.

And if Israeli voters spoke loudly, they also spoke clearly.

The night’s big winner was the centrist Yesh Atid party, which garnered 19 seats, far outrunning election-eve polls to become Israel's second-largest party. Founded and led by Israeli TV personality Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid offers a post-ideological pragmatism. The party couples an emphasis on tough national security with an explicit endorsement of a two-state solution, and promotes free market policies while insisting on the need to bolster the middle class. Meanwhile, Yesh Atid’s avowedly secularist agenda, its core brand, is expressed in terms of the need to integrate Israel’s ultra-orthodox and Arab minorities into the state's civil and military institutions.

Lapid himself is a secular icon in Israel. Though yesterday marked his first election night as a candidate, he is no stranger to politics. His father, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, headed Israel's top secular liberal party, Shinui (Change), for seven years at the beginning of the last decade. While Yesh Atid is not strictly modeled on Shinui, it is in many ways its modern reincarnation.

Lapid and his party seem to reflect the current mood of the Israeli electorate: skeptical of Palestinian intentions but willing to take risks for peace, averse to old-style Israeli socialism but opposed to shredding Israel's social safety net, and socially liberal while respectful of religious expression.

As expected, the Likud-Beitenu list of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to anchor a ruling coalition majority in Israel's 120-seat Knesset, landing 31 seats. It should surprise no one that Netanyahu's first coalition-building phone call after polls closed was to Lapid. Netanyahu has shown a strong predictive preference for broad centrist coalitions to those including religious parties and those to his right. He has repeatedly endeavored to forge coalition governments with Israel’s center-left parties, as with Labor and Kadima after the last election.

Netanyahu – like Ariel Sharon before him, who in his second political incarnation proved a pragmatist rather than an ideologue – is today the leading centrist among his Likud colleagues. And he appears already hard at work on building a center-right coalition – much like Sharon and Lapid the Father teamed up to do ten years ago. Given the little distance between the two on key issues – both are free-market-oriented, both are committed to a two-state solution including an undivided Jerusalem – it is highly likely that they will sit together in Israel's next government.

Last night's third-place party, and the one likely to lead Israel's Opposition in the next Knesset, is Shelly Yachimovich's Labor party. On foreign policy, Labor hews to the country’s consensus, sharing widely held skepticism of Palestinian intentions, while remaining committed to a negotiated solution. Domestically, Yachimovich has oriented the party to the left, moving to slow and even reverse Israel's economic liberalization. The party is projected to receive 15 seats in the incoming Knesset.

While doomsday predictions of Israel’s illiberalism, endless caricatures of a country being transformed by some emerging ultra-orthodox monopoly, and threats of a radical shift to the right may have been en vogue for pundits (and useful for those whose political agendas are served by such misleading portrayals) they stand in stark contrast to reality – and to the real State of Israel. Although it may confound Israel’s critics, the distribution of votes makes it overwhelmingly likely that, once again, both Israel’s next government and its opposition will be led by parties that back the two-state solution.

Israelis woke up on Wednesday to a new political configuration, but a largely unchanged political reality. The country’s center-right and center-left blocs, within which different parties compete for and cannibalize each other's votes, have been roughly stable for over a decade.

Last night, a centrist country, rooted in liberal, Western values identical to our own, gave its vote to parties clustered around the political center. Those who predicted a different outcome will now have to ask themselves which of their assumptions, or their agendas, led them so far astray.

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