Thursday, May 3, 2012

Yair Lapid: Israel Politics new Torchbearer?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a house gathering (חוג בית) conducted by Yair Lapid – the media star turned politician. There is no doubt that Yair Lapid is a savvy speaker and knows how to captivate an audience. He is eloquent, armed with a sharp sense of humor, quick on his feet, and can easily handles tough questions in front of an audience. And he believes someone must carry the torch in Israeli politics. 

Mr. Lapid is passionate about ‘Change’. He wants to change the Israeli political system, and improve the well being of the “middle class”, or the silent majority as he refers to “us”. The word Lapid (לפיד) means “Torch” in Hebrew, and Mr. Lapid positions himself as the next ‘torchbearer’ in Israel political scene. His new party name is “Yesh-Atid” (יש עתיד) which means in Hebrew “There is a future”. Mr. Lapid wants to rekindle “hope” among Israelis, and drive a meaningful “change”. (Where did I hear the words ‘Change’ and ‘Hope’ before?).

Is Yair Lapid the torchbearer we need?
Specifically, Mr. Lapid wants to tackle the fragmentation that plagues the Israeli parliament (Knesset). The current voting system fosters the creation of many small parties, where no party is large enough to form a government by itself, or with a few select partners. The result is a fragile coalition between small & medium parties - each fighting for a “piece” of the government budget to support its constituents. And obviously reaching an agreement on a common political/diplomatic course of action is next to impossible under such conditions.

Mr. Lapid wants to drive “consolidation” among parties by raising the “entry barrier” – i.e. the percentage of votes required for a party to get its first seat in the Knesset.  Raising the bar should encourage smaller parties to merge with each other, or with larger ones. 

There is no doubt that the voting system must be changed in order to eliminate some of the chaos that reigns in today’s Knesset. However you can’t escape the irony in trying to reduce the number of parties by introducing “yet another party” to the system. So why does Mr. Lapid want to create “yet another party” in a highly dense political scene? Why doesn't he simply join an existing party and leverage his popularity in the media to drive his agenda “from within”?

I suppose the answer to this question is similar to the reason why thousands of entrepreneurs leave their jobs and march down the precarious path of starting a new company. Yair Lapid is launching a new “Political Startup”. He seems confident that his “startup party” will make it to the big stage. You can’t blame him for such a belief… After all this is the same “irrational exuberance” that makes Hi-Tech startup tick.

But what is the competitive landscape that Mr. Lapid “startup” is facing? First and foremost is the Likud party headed by  Mr. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. Bibi is the current Israeli prime minister and “leader” of the ruling coalition. Bibi is no stranger to political maneuvering and media influence. This is his second round in the PM chair (he was voted out before) and he definitely learned a few tricks in the school of hard knocks.  

The second competitor is Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the HaAvoda – Israel Labor party (העבודה). Shelly was recently elected as chairman of the Labor party, surprising other party veterans.  HaAvoda is a party that used to dominate Israeli politics till the late 1970’s but has gone from one blunder to another since. Its late leader Yitzhak Rabin managed to briefly capture voters’ hearts during his second term as a PM, but his assassination in 1995 was a blow the party never really recovered from. In a surprise turn of events, Shelly managed to revive the image of a party that was tagged as an “also ran”. She picked “social justice” as her main platform, and the recent protest within middle-class Israelis positioned the HaAvoda party and Mrs. Yachimovich as “the right party at the right place at the right time”.

The third competitor is the Kadima (קדימה) party. It was formed by Ariel Sharon, a maverick Israeli general and a political leader who managed to draw an eclectic group of supporters into a “centrist” party.  Sharon’s charisma turned Kadima into the largest political party in Israel, but his unexpected stroke that put him into a comma, exposed the fact that the party bench wasn’t nearly as strong as its main player. After Sharon was incapacitated, he was succeeded by Ehud Olmert, who found himself tangled in a corruption scheme, and was succeeded by Tsipi Livni. Mrs. Livni did manage to retain Kadima’s momentum in the 2009 elections, making Kadima the largest party in the Knesset, but not large enough to form its own coalition. Through a bizarre (some would say brilliant stunt) turn of events, Bibi managed to send Kadima and Mrs. Livni to the opposition seats and grabbed the government reigns himself.  

The Kadima party is facing the consequences of spending 3yrs in the “political dessert”, coupled with a string of vicious political inner fighting. Those led to the recent departure of the embattled Mrs. Livni and the election of a new party chairman – Shaul Mofaz. In the process of competing for the top position in Kadima, Mr. Mofaz and Mrs. Livni threw enough mud at each other which will take a while to wash down. The expected outcome of this self political destruction is that Kadima will lose a large number of seats in the upcoming elections, and its current seats will be up for grabs by other parties vying for the “centrist” voter.

So this is the competitive scene Mr. Lapid political startup is facing: the Likud led by Bibi, HaAvoda led by Shelly and Kadima led by Shaul.

Spotting a window of opportunity, Bibi and his coalition just approved a measure to hold general elections in September 4th this year, about a year before the scheduled elections. This compressed timeline will help Bibi capitalize on his current momentum; will not leave sufficient time for Mr. Mofaz to recover from the Kadima “mud bath”; will limit the "comeback from the ashes" of the HaAvoda, and will not give Mr. Lapid enough time to build momentum behind Yesh-Atid.

So what will be the political score of this elections game? If you believe in the “zero sum” game theory, then the only thing that will change, is the re-distribution of Kadima seats amongst its political rivals. If I assume that Kadima will lose half of it seats (political parties don’t just disappear in an instant..) then there are 14 seats “in play”. Bibi’s Likud is likely to snatch half of them. Shelly’s HaAvodah will grab a few too. That leaves Mr. Lapid with about 5 seats to grab.

Now 5 seats in the Israeli Knesset aren’t too shabby. It will make Mr. Lapid the leader of the 6th largest party. And probably will allow him to take the helm of the Ministry of Education, a position he is coveting quite a bit. But it is a far cry from the “game changing” pitch we are hearing from Mr. Lapid, who is vying for 15-20 seats and becoming the 3rd largest party in the house.

So this is the question voters may ask themselves come September 4th: Does the Israeli political scene require, and will it benefit from a new Torchbearer? Or should we focus on strengthening one of the existing parties, with the hope that a fewer, larger parties will be able to form a coalition that will be able to govern and make the hard decisions that this country needs to make?

The next few months will hopefully provide more clues as to what the right answer is… It will be a hot <political> summer in Israel for sure.

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