Election Analysis

01.28.13

Israel’s “None Of The Above” Party

The good news about Israel's election should not be dismissed: Benjamin Netanyahu received a vote of no confidence in his foreign policy of stalemate and fear, his economic policy of inequality, and his political partnership with the parties of state-supported religious extremism.

The bad news invites trepidation: The crucial votes against a failed prime minister were cast for "none of the above." Palestinian citizens cast that vote by largely not voting, as did some of the Likud's historic loyalists—Jews living a centimeter above the poverty line or a meter below it in poor outlying towns or big city neighborhoods with no exit. The middle and the upper class came out in droves for this year's "none of the above" candidate—Yair Lapid and his There is a Future party.

Because Israelis like to vote and are often unhappy with all the options, "none of the above" parties are a repeating phenomenon. The Center Party in 1999, Shinui in 2003, and Kadima in 2006 are recent examples. The None of the Above Party usually disintegrates quickly. It lacks the tradition and cohesion that older parties possess. In the extreme cases, such as Tommy Lapid's Shinui in 2003 and his son's party this year, it sells itself on "newness"—though voting for an inexperienced politician to run your country makes as little sense as choosing an inexperienced brain surgeon. Most of all, these parties sell false hopes: they'll give to the middle class without taking from the rich or the poor, they'll make peace without ceding anything of great emotional value, and—the greatest con of all—they will bring political calm to a roiling country by "changing the system of government."

It would be lovely if Lapid breaks the pattern by growing into the responsibility the voters have just given him. So far, though, he appears to be the Chauncey Gardiner in an Israeli remake of Being There, a man much shallower than the hopes others have invested in him, a master of clichés, of kitsch.

Lapid's slogans and image enabled him to attract voters with contrary motives. One reason his party did well in middle-class areas is that it captured some of the energy of 2011's economic protests. The protests were driven by children of the middle class who discovered that in a rapacious economy they were downwardly mobile, who longed for the social solidarity that they'd been taught Israel was supposed to have, and who made common cause with people much poorer. And part of the reason Lapid gained support in those areas is that he embodies the successful class's sense of Israeliness as being secular and Ashkenazi, as living in the right places and serving in the right units.

When Lapid becomes partner to economic policy, he will have to disappoint one set of hopes invested in him or the other. Similarly, the first American effort to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will force him to decide what is more important—a two-state solution or keeping Ariel and Arab East Jerusalem under Israeli rule.

Lapid did build an admirably inclusive slate of candidates. Eight of his party's 19 Knesset members are women. Two are Ethiopian. Inclusiveness has its limits, though. Dismissing a proposed alliance including Arab-backed parties to prevent Netanyahu from gaining a parliamentary majority, he said wouldn't join a bloc "with Hanin Zuabi"—the most outspoken and vilified of Arab Knesset members. Lapid not only ratified delegitimizing Zuabi, he affirmed the unwritten and intolerant rule that Arab parties are not candidates for political coalitions, a tradition that marks Arabs as citizens but not real Israelis.

Lapid's best-known demand is for "equality of burden," meaning that ultra-Orthodox men must be drafted. This also has a double meaning: It's a pushback against the political clout that allows the ultra-Orthodox community to be proudly self-segregated from the society on which it is economically dependent.

But demanding that integration begin with the army is more emotional than practical: Drafting haredim would end the haredi boycott of the last institution of shared Israeliness. Yet the military need is debatable. And to recruit haredim, the army has already created units without women serving in any function, undermining one kind of equality to advance another. Reforming haredi education so that it gives the next generation the ability to work is a more important political battle, but it is more difficult and lacks the subconscious appeal.

Lapid is visibly surprised by his own success, by the position of co-prime minister that he may have gained. Now he has to make choices to turn the slogans into policy. He has to disappoint some of his voters or watch the quick collapse of his party. He has to become something instead of none of the above. I'm not terribly convinced that he knows how.