It was supposed to be a great summer for Finance Minister Yair Lapid. His Yesh Atid party colleagues had hoped that by this point he would have established himself as the leader of the Israeli middle class and the secular public’s ultimate representative in the governing coalition.
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And with the resignation of Likud MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen, who took up an ambassadorial post, Yesh Atid has now moved up to equal representation – 19 seats in the Knesset – with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. On the other hand, in his election campaign Lapid plied a series of election promises, but only some of them have been passed into law a year and a half into the government’s term.
The law on conscripting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, upping the electoral threshold necessary for parties to enter the Knesset and Lapid’s support of closing the Israel Broadcasting Authority are just some of his significant accomplishments, but a long list of flagship initiatives, primarily in the realm of relations between religion and state, currently appear no more than distant hopes for the future. These include civil union legislation that would also apply to same-sex couples and allowing public transportation on Shabbat. And Lapid’s plan to exempt first-time purchasers of new residential construction from value added tax, which is geared to help young couples, has come in for harsh criticism and has stalled in the Knesset.
Opinion polls during the course of the fighting in Gaza pegged Lapid’s standing with the public at its lowest level ever. A Midgam Research poll commissioned by Channel 2 last week gave Yesh Atid just 10 seats in the 120-seat parliament if an election was held now, and place Lapid last, with just 3 percent support, when asked about his suitability as prime minister.
This summer’s military operation in the West Bank after the abduction of the three yeshiva students, followed by Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, pushed Lapid out of the leadership limelight as Yesh Atid’s bread-and-butter socioeconomic issues were cast aside in favor of a military agenda with which the party is less identified. With the end of the hostilities, Lapid will attempt to improve his standing. This week he presented his own plan for the reconstruction of Gaza, his associates say his VAT exemption plan will be put to a Knesset vote during the summer recess, and he has promised the public not to raise taxes despite the costs incurred during Operation Protective Edge.
It should be added, however, that Lapid’s halting success in pushing his agenda is also a reflection of the ongoing failure of Netanyahu’s governing coalition to further a common agenda. As it stands now, Netanyahu’s public support is nonetheless firm following his handling of the confrontation with Hamas in Gaza. According to the polls, no leader of any other party would threaten his job. But a lot could happen in the next month or two that might have a bearing on the prime minister’s standing, if rocket fire on the south continues, for example. For his part, Netanyahu has invited the ultra-Orthodox parties to join his government and has, so far unsuccessfully, considered a coalition with a different makeup.
When the Knesset reconvenes for its fall session, Lapid will be thrown right into the thick of the passage of the state budget, but instead of a budget geared toward generous support for social welfare needs as he had hoped, he’ll need to again carry out belt-tightening measures. Netanyahu’s associates hinted this week that the major costs of Operation Protective Edge will divert considerable resources from next year’s budget and foil major reforms.
The fighting in the south may have caused political complications for Lapid, but it has breathed new life into the coalition’s right-wing parties. The head of Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennett, has been running from one broadcast studio to another in an effort to fulfill his hope to become the leader of the right wing. His party’s standing in the polls has risen as the military campaign widened. If an election was held today, the party might have ended up being the second largest in the Knesset.
But an election is not in the offing, and that leaves Bennett with the complicated task of maintaining Habayit Hayehudi’s impressive standing in the polls in the face of competition for right-wing voters from Likud and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Lieberman is wasting no time. Following the major decline in public support for his party, Yisrael Beiteinu is currently in the midst of a major repair job. Without pulling out of the coalition, Lieberman has put an end to its formal alliance with Likud and has maneuvered to make Netanyahu more dependent on support from Yisrael Beiteinu. Lieberman’s approach has already proven itself: In addition to his party activities, his militant rhetoric in recent weeks has paid off – four recent opinion polls have given his party between 11 and 14 Knesset seats.