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After Israel's Elections, Reshuffling Political Alliances


After yesterday's election in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister but with sharply diminished leverage and new coalitions to calculate. Opinion polls made Netanyahu an overwhelming favorite after his Likud bloc aligned with another right wing faction, but that alliance emerged with fewer seats than expected and with a new centrist rival.

Joining us now from Israel is Jodi Rudoren, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. Good to have you with us today.

JODI RUDOREN: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And what's the reaction to those surprising results?

RUDOREN: Well, people were definitely shocked by the results, but I think a lot of people here feel like this is an exciting change, and there's a strong feeling in Israel that this is going to bring the focus back to domestic concerns, everyday concerns. A lot of people here are kind of frustrated with the big existential foreign policy questions, and that's where Yair Lapid of his new Yesh Atid, or There's a Future, Party got a lot of his support.

CONAN: And he is a former television broadcaster.

RUDOREN: He is. He was quite a celebrity here, celebrity journalist, wrote a column and then was on TV and has really a lot of name recognition, and he's got a lot of kind of personal charm. People call him the ultimate Israeli. He's part of a secular Tel Aviv bourgeoisie and very attractive and sort of speaks well, and he managed to really capitalize on the kind of middle-class centrist concerns, some of which fueled the social protest from 2001 - 2011, excuse me, that brought something like 500,000 people to the streets of Tel Aviv.

CONAN: And a centrist, as you say. What does that mean in terms of Israeli politics?

RUDOREN: It's a good question. I think, typically, Israeli politics are defined largely by the peace process. So a centrist used to - a right-wing person used to be opposed to a two-state solution, and a left-wing person wanted a two-state solution, and someone in the middle maybe wanted to keep some of the settlements, but get to a Palestinian state.

This new centrist vision, this new party, is different from that. It's not really about the Palestinians at all. He says he's really just about middle-class concerns - education, apartment prices - and one of his big issues is the idea of integrating the ultra Orthodox more into society. They, right now, are largely exempt from military service. Many of the men don't work, so therefore they don't really pay taxes, and that was one of his signature issues too. So it's not really the typical spectrum of Israeli politics. It's kind of a different tack.

CONAN: Well, if we go by that old calculation you just mentioned, the left wing bloc has 60 seats, and the right wing bloc has 60 seats.

RUDOREN: Sort of, although this guy, Yair Lapid, is not really in the left wing bloc. He said today that he is not interested in forming what they call a blocking coalition with the Arab parties, which are typically counted in the left wing bloc. He really says he's not center-left. He's just center.

And so the blocs may have some new definitions here. I think we're going to see a different kind of coalition. Netanyahu is going to partner up with the centrists first and then see who else he brings in. So I think that the definitions are shifting a little bit.

CONAN: With the centrists first, but, of course, he's already in alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

RUDOREN: That's right. Well, his former foreign minister because you remember that Lieberman resigned last month after being indicted for fraud. So he's not currently in the ministry anymore. But, right. He's got - so he starts out with that right wing alliance, and then Lapid is probably the next guy in the coalition.

And then he'll be looking to get other partners. Most people here think that he will look both to the right and further to the left, bring in a couple more of these center-left types, like Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, and the very small now Kadima party with Shaul Mofaz. And then also probably reach out to this new party, Jewish Home, who - which has a very right-wing agenda on the Palestinians but has same of the same issues of Lapid on domestic issues, particularly on the draft.

And then one big question is Netanyahu has been in the coalition for the last four years with the ultraorthodox parties as well. And it's unclear whether they would join a coalition whose priority is to address this draft issue.

CONAN: I was just going to say, would this result, from their point of view, represented defeat?

RUDOREN: Definitely. I mean, definitely that they are in a - they lost some seats, first of all, a couple seats. But also, I think, they are definitely concerned about the rise of Yair Lapid with this issue and Netanyahu's agreement to tackle this issue. Netanyahu had actually agreed last year to take on this issue. He - you'll might remember that he formed a larger coalition with the Kadima party, which at that time was very large, and the promise was that they were going to address the draft issue. And they spent about 70 days in this coalition supposedly working on it but it blew up because Netanyahu would not push it with the ultraorthodox. And so the coalition - that coalition fell apart or the Kadima left.

And now, it - he seems to say he's going to do it now. He talks - talked today about the draft as - or the sharing the burden is kind of the terminology here that (unintelligible) of election, share the burden. He mentioned that as one of three principles on what the new coalition will be formed.

CONAN: And this is also partly in response to rulings from the Israeli courts.

RUDOREN: That's correct. There was a ruling last spring that is - validated a law that gave widespread exemptions to thousands of full-time yeshiva students to give them exemptions from the draft. That ruling was - that it was ruled unlawful or illegal. And they were supposed to come up with a new play on it to how to integrate them. They basically haven't and so officially now the ultraorthodox are subject to the draft but nobody's really been drafted, very few.

CONAN: And so we see this split. What is it going to mean for the settler movement?

RUDOREN: Well, it's not entirely clear yet. As, you know, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been very supportive of the settlers in general. And in particularly, recently, a lot of people thought that his aggressive push to expand settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank over the last couple of months were partly a campaign play, particularly because he did have this challenge from the right, from the Jewish Home party. And it's unclear now that he's a little bit weaker and that the Jewish Home didn't do quite as well as some people expected how that will change things.

Yair Lapid also has said that he supports keeping most of the settlement blocks in any future Palestinian-Israeli agreement. But he - and Yair Lapid has said that he wants to return to negotiations, but he's also said that he doesn't think Arabs want peace, and that he doesn't think there's a strong partner. So I don't think there's any immediate danger that there will be - to the settlers, that there's going to be large evacuations. But I think that one of the issues of this whole kind of sharing the burden and readjusting the budget to focus on these middle class people in Tel Aviv is a lot of people are angry that a lot of the subsidies and stuff has gone to the settlers. So that might change.

CONAN: And it's interesting, you say that there was some exhaustion with those existential issues that are such a part of Israeli life, this just after we saw the IDF in battle with Hamas and Gaza with a new regime in Egypt that worries many people and civil war underway on the other border, in Syria.

RUDOREN: Right. It's not that any of the existential issues have gone away or are any closer to resolution. It's just that people - I do see exhaustion and I think that's part of it. But there's something maybe deeper, too, which is people have - and the Palestinians - a lot more people has given up on the possibility of a solution. So this idea that there's no partner, this idea that it kind of can't happen in my lifetime, has really taken hold here. And so people feel like it's just too tough to tackle.

And that's also true of the changes in the region. I think people here are quite worried about the changes in the region, Egypt, Syria, the Iranian nuclear threat. These are deep profound, everyday concerns. But I think people feel like they don't know - they don't hear any solutions from anyone that feel workable. They just feel sort of scared and it's let them turn inward and joke on some other things. And the politicians basically also let them do that because very few of them talks about any of these issues during the campaign. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has made Iran kind of his signature issue and he's been an international leader on it for more than a decade, barely mentioned it in the campaign.

CONAN: And, of course, we last saw him at the United Nations General Assembly holding up that cartoon image of a bomb and talking about a redline, and talking about that redline arriving some time in 2013.

RUDOREN: That's right. And, you know, I think that - actually, he has pretty strong support on the Iranian issue in the Israeli public. I think people here really do agree with him that an Iranian bomb is an existential threat to Israel. There is definitely disagreement about whether Israel should launch a military attack on its own or, you know, get help from the United States. But I think in general, people feel like he has been a strong leader on that issue and, you know, really has galvanized the international community to enact crippling sanctions, et cetera, et cetera. So I was surprised that he didn't emphasize it more in the campaign because I thought it would be a winning issue for him, and it is, in his definition imminent, but it just wasn't front and center.

CONAN: And while there's no doubt he is the leader of whatever coalition he can cobble together, is it going to be stable? Is it going to be able to sustain, or are we looking at elections coming up sooner rather than later?

RUDOREN: Well, I hate to try to predict the future and, you know, we were mostly wrong about what was going to happen last night. So I want to be careful. But, you know, first of all, everyone does seem to think that he will form a coalition. There is a little bit of a movement on the left to try to create what's called a blocking coalition. But as I said, Yair Lapid has kind of rejected that notion and neither - he has said he's not a candidate for prime minister and there really isn't anyone else that you could imagine coming forward. So it does seem very likely that he will be prime minister for the next government.

But many, many commentators here today say that it will not be a stable coalition, that he either would have an incredibly narrow majority on the right wing or that he would have this broader coalition but that it would have internal dissension within it or competing interests within in and that several people, several different factions would have the ability to topple the coalition because Netanyahu's own bloc would be less than half of the government and probably less than half of the Cabinet ministers.

CONAN: And if Yair Lapid is part of this broader coalition, what might this new number two party extract from the coalition in return for joining it?

RUDOREN: It's a very interesting question. I mean, there - I think the first thing that we know is that he will make these issues that he has put front and center requirements in the coalition agreement, first the draft issue or the integration of the ultraorthodox and then also some stuff probably on education and housing. But one of the key questions is what ministries he would be interested in for himself and for other people in his party. I think when people thought he was going to have a smaller faction, people thought he would go for the education ministry.

I think he will want that for one of his people, but I think he'll probably go for something bigger himself. Ironically, there was some talk today about the possibility of him wanting to be foreign minister, which is, you know, one of the top, top jobs, very high profile and very much seen as a sort of gateway to the prime ministership. It's ironic because, of course, he's barely spoken about foreign policy in his whole political campaign.

CONAN: Jodi Rudoren, thanks very much. It looks like you're going to have some interesting days ahead.

RUDOREN: Absolutely. Thanks for your interest, Neal.

CONAN: Jodi Rudoren joined us by phone from Israel where she is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.