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Expert: Personalities drive Israeli politics
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Expert: Personalities drive Israeli politics

Driven by personalities over traditional movements, Israeli voters elevated political figures from little-known parties in last month’s election.

“Two young people have risen and took over who no one ever heard of before,” said Shalmi Barmore, an historian and former director of education at Yad Vashem, referring to Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi party.

Speaking Jan. 29 at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, Barmore described the sizeable inroads both candidates had made in the Israeli election seven days earlier.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his party emerged victorious, the overall results left him with a thin majority for Likud in the Knesset and a variety of competing interests that further clouded efforts to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

“The Right is now more extremely right,” said Barmore, who taught history at The Hebrew University’s School for Overseas Students.

Lapid, a popular Israeli TV anchor, ran on a centrist platform, representing the middle class. A key element of his campaign was dropping military exemptions for members of the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community.

Bennett, a high-tech entrepreneur, ran to the right of Netanyahu, floating once marginal ideas like the annexation of all or parts of the West Bank, especially “Area C,” which is home to about 350,000 Jewish settlers.

“People think this, but they have never said it in public,” said Barmore.

Parties on the Right gained a clear majority of between 65 and 72 percent in the 120-seat Knesset. Although the left-leaning Labor party, headed by Shelly Yachimovich, came in third with 15 seats to Likud’s 31 seats and Yesh Atid’s 19, the coalition system will enable the right wing to assert its views, said Barmore. The Left “has swung to the right,” often calling itself centrist.

However, in its effort to cast itself as more moderate, Barmore said the Labor party “really alienated many people” by coming out with a paper on defense that doesn’t mention the peace process, although it remained in the party’s platform.

The politician who seems to be on the outs is Tzipi Livni, head of the Hatnua party, who in the 2009 election seemed to be the rising star of Israeli politics.

“We now talk about personalities, not movements,” lamented Barmore. “I grew up in the Labor party in Israel. We had parties and ideologies. Now it’s Shelly, it’s Yair, Naftali. For some it’s Bibi, it’s Tzipi. It’s personalities.”

Barmore said he was unsure what was behind the phenomenon, but noted that “parties just born tomorrow will disappear.”

These personalities will have to compete for representation with the right-wing religious parties, which remain formidable forces on the political scene, said Barmore. The Sephardi Shas party received 11 seats, and United Torah Judaism got seven seats.

“Lapid has said he will not sit down with the haredim unless it is as an equal,” said Barmore, who acknowledged that “the situation really is quite impossible.”

But even if Israelis aren’t inclined to resuscitate the peace process, pressure will build from the outside. In the coming months, he said, “we expect not Obama but the Europeans to put forth a peace process.”

“We have a clear message from the world,” said Barmore, which could land Netanyahu in “a huge mess” if he forms an unstable government.

“Having said that, tomorrow I could give you a reverse speech,” he said. “Things change so quickly in the Middle East.”

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