Binyamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister after this week’s elections in Israel but he is a diminished figure following the loss of a quarter of his rightwing Likud-Beiteinu alliance’s seats in the Knesset. Mr Netanyahu’s nemesis was not, as many commentators expected, Naftali Bennett, the far-right leader of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), who advocates the annexation by Israel of most of the Occupied Palestinian Territories on the West Bank. Instead, the surprise success of the election was Yair Lapid, a 49-year-old former television presenter whose Yesh Atid (There is a Future) won 19 seats, putting it in second place to Mr Netanyahu’s bloc, which won 31 seats.
Mr Lapid’s campaign focused less on national security than on economic and social issues, promising to ease the tax burden on the middle class and to end the exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox men who opt for full-time study of the Torah.
Mr Lapid’s success, which should secure his party a place in government, has been hailed as evidence of the resilience of Israel’s secular centre-left, often dismissed as a spent political force. His views on the conflict with the Palestinians, however, while more moderate than those of many in Mr Netanyahu’s current government, are not encouraging. Mr Lapid favours negotiations with the Palestinians but opposes the dismantling of the huge Israeli settlements in the West Bank that are the source of great hardship for many Palestinians and make a viable Palestinian state practically impossible. “What I want is not a ‘new Middle East’, but to be rid of them and put a tall fence between us and them,” he declared recently.
The Palestinians cannot, however, be wished away or ignored out of existence. If Israel wishes to secure a lasting peace with its neighbours as a democratic Jewish state, its new government must halt the growth of settlements immediately and engage in serious, substantive negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of the 1967 borders.