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Israel picks celebrity over substance in a status quo election

For all the fuss about Yair Lapid's success in Israel's elections, there is another, more encouraging message to be found in the voters' verdict.

Yair Lapid's name doesn't rhyme with "vapid" in Hebrew. But it is, nonetheless, an apt description of the man who leads Israel's Yesh Atid party - the surprise second-place finisher in Tuesday's election - and, indeed, for the whole elections. Yesh Atid ("There's a future"), which ran on a sort of centre-vague platform, came from nowhere, headed by Mr Lapid, a former TV celebrity and columnist, to win 19 seats. With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party now down to 32 seats, Mr Lapid is in the position of kingmaker for a potential coalition with Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Lapid has no experience in politics, and campaigned on a ticket of representing the wronged, hard-working middle class. "Where's the money?" ran his campaign slogan, as he rode the crest of widespread concern over economic and social policy, synthesised in Israel's massive protests of 2011.

"Where's your policy?" might be one reply to a party that, much like others in this election, put the focus on domestic issues - housing, education, paycheques - while pointedly ignoring the elephant in the room: Palestine.

This was also the approach taken by the next largest centre-left party, Labour (15 seats). Hatnua, headed by Tzipi Livni, formerly of the centre-right Kadima, and the left-wing Meretz party (with 12 seats between them) at least included talking to Palestinians and a two-state solution in their election campaigns.

Of course, many populations ignore foreign policy at the polling booths - especially given the recent financial crisis worldwide. But the absence of a foreign policy debate is notable in Israel, where the subject used to have more weight. Polls show that the majority support a peace deal, but also don't believe it can happen. Yousef Munayyer, the director of the Jerusalem Fund in Washington DC, points to other factors. "The issue used to be far more intimate, as there was far greater interaction, for one," he says, referring to a time before Israel's separation wall. "There were also greater costs associated with the occupation. Today, the level of violence for Israel is far lower than it has been for a long time." In other words, there is less urgency.

This is perhaps the biggest crime committed by Israeli politicians against their own people: selling the lie that a political solution is not possible, much less necessary. A pervasive narrative has held sway, in which Israel has tried to pursue a political solution with the Palestinians, but there is "no partner for peace". That was the line spouted by then-Labour leader Ehud Barak after the failure of talks at Camp David in 2000 - which then led to the devastating outbreak of the second intifada.

If the left-wing parrots the lines of the right-wing, what actually distinguishes them? Now, Israeli governments are all about managing the status quo, pretending the occupation can carry on indefinitely.

And it has resulted in a population that is standing still while the region drastically changes, caught in a startled, fearful paralysis generated by constant panic-mongering by politicians over Iran, the "Islamist Winter" (the Arab uprisings) and imminent elimination by hateful neighbours.

This, some commentators say, is what accounts for a trite, superficial approach to voting, with the Israeli public picking new candidates like they would new restaurants: on the basis of modern appearances, hip talk and buzzword slogans.

Now, as the horse-trading over a coalition commences, the danger is that Mr Lapid - especially if he becomes foreign minister - will be the charismatic, friendly face of a hard-right, settler-friendly government. Mr Netanyahu could continue to keep the Palestinian issue in deep freeze, with Mr Lapid making all the right noises to the international community.

But there is another reading of the tea leaves: the public, by default, has rejected Mr Netanyahu's fear-invoking script about the Middle East. Writing in Haaretz, Carlo Strenger notes that, with the loss of seats for Mr Netanyahu's party, Israeli voters have "made clear that they are sick of Netanyahu's and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman's politics of fear and inaction" and "sick of being scared into voting for politicians who forecast Israel's annihilation".

The Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar, writing in Al Monitor, sees in the centrist votes, however splintered, a "positive message to our neighbours", he says. "Bibi [Netanyahu] is not Israel the game is not over." Eldar holds that election results show that Israelis aren't buying Mr Netanyahu's message - and that the region should communicate directly with the Israeli public, bypassing leaders. "Israelis are open to other things, to trying something new," he says. "This is the time for Arab countries to say 'We are willing to talk to you'."

But amid talk of a new Middle East, perhaps based on a revived Arab Peace Initiative, Palestinians are wearily pessimistic about any new Israeli government. Speaking to Russia Today, Ramzy Baroud, the editor of the Palestine Chronicle, explains: "It is not going to have any practical impact, as far as the daily struggle of Palestinians is concerned ... The Israeli bulldozers will not stop for a minute."

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and the author of Not the Enemy - Israel's Jews from Arab Lands

On Twitter: @rachshabi

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