While the Obamas gently waltzed into their second stint at the White House, the tempo changed rapidly in Israel, the United States of America’s closest friend and ally. The general elections there have ended the bull run of the two-time prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In spite of his coup last year of roping in the far Right Yisrael Beiteinu Party, Mr Netanyahu has registered a dismal win with his Likud-Beiteinu coalition, managing just 31 seats. This is a steep decline from its earlier tally of 42 and would now require it to go out with a begging bowl in order to form a coalition government. But the bigger surprise of the elections is the performance of the Yesh Atid, led by the political greenhorn and former mediaperson, Yair Lapid. Yesh Atid’s winning of 19 seats makes it Likud-Beiteinu’s first choice for an ally, especially since the right-wing parties together cannot make up for the shortfall. But Yesh Atid, which had campaigned against all that Likud-Beiteinu stood for, would find it difficult to join hands with its political opponent without betraying its voters’ aspirations. These aspirations, particularly of Israel’s burgeoning middle class, have more to do with better living standards, less expensive housing and improved security than the threat of external aggression that has been the sole obsession of the Likud Party. The electoral upset for the latter indicates that although voters do not underestimate the importance of a strong-armed foreign and military policy, they want a more substantial change in the country’s domestic policies, relating especially to its plummeting economy. This the Likud-Beiteinu has been unable to realize, and it is possibly why Mr Netanyahu’s incessant drumming up of the danger from Iran and his flexing of muscles in Gaza failed to translate into votes for his party.
The sudden popularity of Yesh Atid is also believed to reflect the support of Israel’s secular majority for the peace process with Palestine. This may be the case, but it is unlikely that Mr Lapid will endanger his newfound political glory by pushing for any radical settlement on the issue. His energy is more likely to be directed at enrolling the ultra-orthodox Haredi community for military service, resisted tooth and nail by rightist parties. This issue, together with the other contentious issue of Jewish settlements in disputed areas, may even supplant the peace drive in Israel.