Stopped at the Green Line

There are two cardinal founding truths of the State of Israel. First, with or without the exact contours of the 1947 UN partition plan, Israel was going to be a state like no other. Its establishment opposed by everybody else in its neighbourhood, Israel would need a miracle to come into being, survive the inevitable hostilities, and then continue to exist. Second, the founders of Israel envisioned, after Theodor Herzl himself, a secular, modern state reclaimed from the desert by hardworking people, with little time for religion. Zionism, as fathered by Herzl and as it existed till the Six-Day War of 1967, was a socialist-lite ideology that rejected not only the patience of the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to wait for the messiah to come and deliver unto them Israel but also the Haredim itself. And the more extreme of the Haredim didn't accept Israel.

When 99.8 per cent of Tuesday's votes had been counted, one half of Israelis were pleasantly surprised to see an acknowledgement of the two founding truths. They had been reconciling themselves to the inevitability of losing their country to the troublesome fringe — the ultra-Orthodox, the West Bank settlers, and the religious and ultra-right parties. They were disappointed with Binyamin Netanyahu, not because as prime minister he was worse than his predecessors, but because he moved into the tight embrace of his religious and ultra-right allies, sealed with his Likud's merger with former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel, Our Home) for the electoral list.

Likud, founded in the 1970s as a coalition of smaller rightwing outfits, was born of the exasperation with the Labour elite and its Ashkenazi establishment, which had ruled Israel since 1948, first as Mapai (which formed Labour in 1968 with two other parties), and then as the Labour Alignment. When Menachem Begin became PM in 1977, Revisionist (rightwing but still secular) Zionism had its first taste of power, and Israel took its first step in moving away from the narrative of the leftwing Kibbutzniks who had built it to the rightwing and religious settlers, who were inching towards the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The 2013 election was the first, however, in which the settlers expected to assume power directly through their poster-boy, Naftali Bennett, whose ultra-nationalist HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home) — uncompromising on not allowing a Palestinian state and on crossing the Green Line — was predicted to finish second, making the software tycoon indispensable for Netanyahu, and a senior minister.

During the lacklustre campaign, however, Bennett had become Bibi's biggest challenge. Even as the international media was lamenting the implosion of Israel's left and centre, the far right storm was pulling Bibi into its vortex. The only schadenfreude his foes felt was how Bibi's years of pandering to the religious and rightwing fringe had come home to roost. But when the results came, it was TV celebrity-turned-politician Yair Lapid's centre-left Yesh Atid (There is a Future) that usurped Bennett's presumed place, capitalising on the civic protests of 2011. Lapid has been equally uncompromising on scrapping the law exempting ultra-Orthodox men from military service and on withdrawal from the West Bank.

What Lapid does over the next few days as kingmaker — Netanyahu has 28 (plus 14 ) days, assuming he's the one President Shimon Peres calls, to stitch together a coalition — will bring closure to Tuesday's vote. He is likely to join government to dismantle from within the religious-rightist hijack of the national agenda. But what's the price Bibi is willing to pay? If Lapid doesn't climb down, Bibi will have to discard his old allies and ask Tzipi Livni's Hatnua (The Movement) and Labour to join him. But Labour chief Shelly Yachimovich has ruled out working with him. If Lapid doesn't compromise, Bennett is not making it to government. But without Lapid, Bibi will be locked in a rough 60-60 stalemate with the left in the Knesset.

So a new centrist coalition is riding piggy-back on Lapid. In a post-Arab Spring neighbourhood, with the Palestinians gaining UN non-member observer status, the message to Bibi is this: return to the negotiating table, curb religious interference in civic life and focus on the economy, which registered its lowest growth since 2009. It's only one half of Israel saying so, but it's the half that had almost lost its voice at a time when longstanding popular support for the two-state roadmap had begun to thin.

Meanwhile, peaceniks should chew on this: of the major wars involving Israel, four (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973) were overseen by Mapai/ Labour, two (2006, 2008-09) by Kadima and one (1982) by Likud. The Camp David Accords (1978), which began the peace process, were signed by Begin, whose son Benny, was omitted from the Likud electoral list for being a moderate. "Peace" is not a lazy hawk-versus-dove dichotomy. Tuesday's vote will at least ensure the rhetoric hereafter is toned down inside Israel. If Zionism and religion could meet, it isn't impossible for Bibi to work with his foes. Because, next time, he may not make it at all.

sudeep.paul@expressindia.com

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