According to polls prior to Jan. 22 elections, the candidate for a surprise win in Israeli politics was supposed to be Naftali Benett, the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home (Ha Bayit Ha Yehudi). The surprise came from former TV journalist Yair Lapid and his centrist Future Party (Yesh Atid). Despite estimates showing 10-12 seats he won 19 seats in the 120 seat Israeli Parliament, Knesset, and became the second biggest party after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud coalition with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Our Home (Yisreal Beitenu), which could only collect 31 seats in total.
Lapid is a moderate by Israeli standards and focused more on economic problems, in support of more dialogue with Palestinians and less enmity with the neighborhood. It is a correction for Israeli politics that has been in a continuous lean to the right. (In the same sense it is a correction to the intro of this author’s piece on Jan. 23 that suggested further rightist lean considering early results.) Lapid’s success, together with left-wing Meretz’s 6 seats (instead of 3 suggested by earlier polls) showed that voters had need of a counterbalance in Israel’s politics.
Now opening doors for a greater coalition with Netanyahu, Lapid is getting ready to bargain for important ministries as the ‘senior partner’ of the coalition. The first post in his list might be the Foreign Ministry, according to Israeli media reports. There comes the big problem. Lieberman has been occupying the Foreign Ministry until his resignation because of a court case in December 2012. Netanyahu is taking care of the ministry on behalf of his coalition partner for now, because Lieberman might want the ministry for him or his party once again.
But Lieberman has big problems himself. The frontline defender of a more aggressive policy toward Iran and an opponent of an apology from Turkey over the killing of nine Turks on board the Mavi Marmara ship on its way to break embargo in Gaza in 2010, Lieberman has two more problems domestically. One is a fraud claim that might see him thrown in jail and the other one is an in-house problem within the Foreign Ministry. In a yearly ambassador conference in Israel, the country’s representatives abroad stood behind their senior colleague, Ron Prosor, a representative to the UN who questioned the government policy on Jewish settlements and got grilled by National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror. It seems from the outside that Israeli diplomats are not okay with hard-line policies supported by Lieberman and his party.
If Lapid gets into the coalition and takes the Foreign Ministry, this move may positively change the balance in Israel’s relations with Turkey, too. There are signs that following the Tahrir revolution in Egypt and the Arab Spring, the Israeli embargo on Gaza is not as strict as before, leaving the Israeli administration with the psychological threshold of saying sorry for killing the unarmed citizens of a natural ally in the region, paying their dues and moving on.
This article was published in the Hurriyet Daily News on Jan. 25, 2013.
Murat Yetkin is the current editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News and a columnist for Radikal, a Turkish publication. He is a political commentator on Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs and has previously worked for BBC World Service and AFP. He can be found on Twitter: @MuratYetkin2.