It's Okay if You Voted Lapid

Despite what you may have heard, the shift toward more centrist and personal politics in the recent election is good news for Israel.

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It will be quite a while before it's possible to understand and internalize all of the lessons of Israel's recent national election. One lesson that many people have already pointed out is the partial breakdown of political blocs in Israel – although the breakdown occurred largely among the voters, not the politicians. As a result of this positive, welcome trend, the political center in Israel has become stronger and the more extremist parties on either side of the political spectrum have lost ground.

In the surveys conducted in the last few days of the election campaign, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett lost three Knesset seats to Yair Lapid, who heads Yesh Atid. This shifting of electoral support is tangible evidence of the above trend. Furthermore, the day after the election, Yapid gave proper and important expression to the phenomenon by declaring he would not be party to such bizarre ideas as a “blocking majority.” In making such a declaration, he contributed significantly to a healthier atmosphere in Israel’s political arena by preventing Shas and United Torah Judaism from mounting an extortion campaign based on whether or not they would recommend to President Shimon Peres that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who is the leader of the largest party, Likud Yisrael Beiteinu) form the next government.

When Netanyahu saw he could count on 62 members of the Knesset to recommend him to the president, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties lost their capacity to issue any credible threats on that issue. The attack on Lapid for proclaiming that he would not “join a blocking majority with Hanin Zuabis” – in other words, with members of Knesset like Balad MK Hanin Zuabi – is baseless and hypocritical. He was ruling out Zuabi not because she is an Arab MK but because of her political views and her behavior. In my opinion, Lapid is fully justified in taking this position.

Two additional – and interrelated – lessons that could have far-reaching ramifications in the long run can be learned from the elections.

First, the elections became personal, with many Israeli voters casting ballots for leaders, not their parties. This trend was prominently expressed in the election campaign broadcasts of the parties themselves. In most of these broadcasts, the focus was on the leader. There are those who will argue that this is a negative phenomenon and, mourning the demise of partisan ideology, will maintain that the focus must be on the party, not its leader.

But such thinking is misguided; this is a positive phenomenon that should be welcomed. In the world’s most established democracies, such as the United States and Britain, elections are personal, and voters cast their ballots for the candidate they think most suitable to be president or prime minister. Although, in most cases, the candidates are not independent and represent particular political parties, the voters in these countries are voting for leaders, not parties. Personal elections strengthen the bond between voter and their elected leaders and increase the depth of responsibility that the latter must bear toward the former. The major factor that has led to a significant improvement in municipal politics has been the introduction of personal elections in mayoral races.

Second, the recent elections in Israel have considerably weakened the appeal of primaries. Nothing has tarnished Israeli politics more than the primaries. In the best cases, primaries have a distorting effect because registered party members do not necessarily represent that party’s voters. In the worst cases, they open the door to such corrupt and morally unacceptable phenomena as mass party registration and “vote contractors.”

The extremist character of the Likud’s list of candidates for the 2013 Knesset elections is the result of a hostile takeover by settlers who formally joined the Likud and pushed cabinet ministers Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan off the party’s candidate list. When the ballot boxes in the settlements were opened on January 22 after the polling stations were closed, it was clear that the settlers had voted for Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party or the extreme rightist party Otzma Leyisrael but not for Likud Yisrael Beiteinu, the joint ticket that the Likud formed with Yisrael Beiteinu for the elections.

In Yesh Atid, there were no primaries. Party leader Lapid himself drew up the list of candidates, managing to create a superb team consisting of a wonderful range of extraordinarily qualified individuals, and he even declared that he would also draw up the candidate list for his party for the next Knesset elections. This did not stop hundreds of thousands of Israeli voters from casting their ballot for him and his party.

Lapid’s electoral success clearly indicates that a proper alternative must be found to the system of primaries. There are various options, all of which must be tested. But the primaries in their present format must definitely be shown the door.

Israelis increasingly cast their ballots for individuals not parties.Credit: Reuters

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