Monday, January 9, 2012

Israel's Political Shakeup

In the past 48 hours, two major Israeli figures have entered the political arena.  On Sunday, Israeli talk show host Yair Lapid announced he would run for Knesset as the head of a new, likely centrist, political party.  Today, Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad Shalit, announced he would run as part of the center-left Labor party.

The announcements are probably bad news for Prime Minister Netanyahu.  Both Lapid and Shalit are popular political outsiders who are not particularly ideological.  There is little doubt that they can carry much of the Israeli ideological center.  Many on the far right in Israel likely will resent what they will perceive as opportunism by the two men.  It is highly likely, for example, that a Jerusalem Post editorial in the next four days will attack Noam Shalit for "forcing" Israel to exchange 1027 Palestinian prisoners for his son.  However, such attacks speak only to the influence Mr. Lapid and Mr. Shalit may command in Israeli politics.

[Update: That editorial can be found here]

Lapid's influence is based in the trust the Israeli public has in him as a talk-show host and journalist.  The switch from journalism to politics in Israel is a well-trodden path.  Both Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovitch and prominent Kadima MK Nachman Shai were journalists before entering politics as well.  Yair Lapid is said to represent the quintessential Israeli, and guests on his television show have come from across the political spectrum.  Whether his party will siphon votes from Kadima will depend on the party's exact platform, and whether it runs as part of a list with another party (or parties).  However, if Lapid positions his party right of center, he may very well win the votes of former Likud voters who are disillusioned with the way PM Netanyahu's coalition has veered to the far right under pressure from Yisrael Beiteinu.  Lapid's run will also put pressure on Netanyahu to come out strongly against religious radicals, including those in Beit Shemesh, who are wildly unpopular in Israel. 

Noam Shalit's alignment with the Labor party comes just months after the election of Shelly Yachimovitch as the new party leader.  The participation of both of them in the Labor party brings significant change after the party's poor performance in the 2009 parliamentary elections.  Shalit's alignment with the Labor party is a slap in the face to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who made a point of meeting with him repeatedly and working proactively to bring his son home.  Some Israelis may resent that after Netanyahu extended himself for Gilad Shalit, his father has now joined an opposition party.  However, Labor's constituents may very well see it as a strong stance against the inefficiency of government in that it took five years to bring Gilad Shalit back home.

Whether or not Lapid and Shalit will change the face of Israeli politics is a completely open question.  However, the entrance of both men into the Israeli political scene at the same time is significant.  It indicates that both men see an Israeli public which is weary of the status quo and may be sympathetic to new leadership.  While neither man comes completely out of nowhere, both will be new actors on the political scene.  In the highly entrenched world of elite Israeli politics, fresh ideas and fresh players will be key to fostering strong leadership regardless of how the political pie is divided.

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