The international media get a lot wrong in their reporting on Israel, but the latest election results have thrown into stark relief just how wildly reporters can miss the mark. The second-largest party in the next Knesset will be the centrist Yesh Atid, a new party led by former journalist Yair Lapid; it seems likely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will welcome Lapid into the next coalition, shifting the government’s center of gravity toward the middle. But in advance of the vote, the New York Times, Time, NBC, the BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, and numerous other outlets confidently reported that the election would represent a shift to the far right. The New Yorker’s David Remnick wrung his hands for 9,000 words on the topic.
The media narrative began with a viewpoint reportedly voiced by Barack Obama. When the Palestinians violated the Oslo Accords by unilaterally seeking and winning an upgraded status at the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu’s government responded by announcing plans for new construction outside Jerusalem. According to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the White House’s favorite reporter on the Israel beat, the president privately reacted to the move by repeatedly commenting that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” Never mind the counter-argument that it wouldn’t be in Israel’s interest to let the Palestinian move at the U.N. go unanswered, the conventional wisdom holds that settlement expansion undermines Israel’s interest in negotiated peace with a Palestinian state.
From that conventional wisdom flowed the preelection narrative in the press: The joint list that Netanyahu’s Likud formed for this election with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, dubbed Likud Beiteinu, was full of radicals; moderate Likudniks had been squeezed out. The phenom of the election would be Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, a hawkish religious Zionist with sympathy for the settler movement. The government would be full of advocates for unilateral annexation of all or part of the West Bank. The two-state solution would be a dead letter, and the result would be an apartheid state that would become an international pariah.
These dire conclusions would be debatable even if the rest of the analysis had proved correct, but the key error was viewing Israeli politics entirely in terms of the conflict with the Palestinians. That’s not how Israelis view it.
The election focused almost entirely on domestic issues. Bennett actually made a point of not talking about the Palestinians; his impressive poll numbers (which he ended up underperforming) reflected his charisma and his biography of business success and special forces service, not his views on settlements.
If the prophets of an Israel doomed by the far right noticed the role of domestic issues, it was often to lament, as Remnick did, that the left was focused on them instead of on reviving the peace process. But the decision of the Labor party, led by Shelly Yachimovich, to focus on domestic policy—Labor’s slogan for this election was “It could be better here”—was a success. Yachimovich will lead the Knesset’s third-largest party.
But the greater success, of course, was Yesh Atid’s. And again, Lapid’s party succeeded with an appeal focused on domestic politics. Dov Lipman, number 17 on the Yesh Atid list—and therefore someone who wasn’t expected to be in the next Knesset, but who will be—told reporters that the result was “a very clear statement the people of Israel want to see a different direction. They want to see a country which deals with all the pressing issues inside the country in terms of education, equality of national service, housing reform, electoral reform, dealing with middle-class Israel.”
The national service issue was especially important. The exemption from military service for the Haredim (also called the ultra-Orthodox) lapsed last year and was left in legal limbo by Netanyahu, hamstrung by Haredi parties in his governing coalition. If Netanyahu can form a coalition that no longer depends on the Haredi parties, a more equitable regime of national service (which may or may not mean military service) is quite possible. Bennett has endorsed some sort of reform on this front—a Haredi man heckled him over it when he visited the Western Wall the day before the election—so a coalition of Likud Beiteinu, Jewish Home, and Yesh Atid (and possibly another party to Lapid’s left) may successfully pursue this popular initiative.