Israel's new power broker captured hearts of silent majority

Tel Aviv, Israel - They pitched tents along Rothschild Boulevard and took to the streets in unprecedented numbers, hundreds of thousands demonstrating against the rising costs of gas, apartments, even cottage cheese.

Back on the genteel boulevard Wednesday, many of those middle-class protesters from 2011 said they had taken their grievances to the ballot box the day before, helping to catapult Yair Lapid, a suave, handsome journalist-turned-populist-politician, into Israel's newest power broker.

"He spoke out the strongest about how everything in this country is upside down," said Elad Shoshan, 28, who rents an apartment on a cheaper street off the boulevard.

Lapid's new, centrist Yesh Atid party shocked the political establishment by winning 19 of parliament's 120 seats, becoming Israel's second-largest faction and a crucial partner for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose relatively poor showing left him scrambling to form a stable coalition.

While Netanyahu remains all but assured of serving a third term, Yesh Atid's ascendance promises to shift the government's focus to pocketbook concerns despite the pressing foreign policy issues Israel faces.

Lapid's campaign hardly challenged Netanyahu's policies on the Iranian nuclear threat, the tumult in the Arab world or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Instead, voters and analysts alike said Lapid had captured the hearts of Israel's silent majority with his personal charm and a positive, inclusive message that harnessed the everyday frustrations that fueled the huge social justice protests in 2011. On Wednesday, the prime minister embraced Lapid's platform, promising a government "as broad as possible" that would bring change on three fronts: affordable housing, government reform and forcing ultra-Orthodox Jews to "share the burden" of military service and taxes.

The election results were widely seen as a rebuke to the status quo, but not necessarily a call for change in approach to such contentious questions as what to do about the Palestinians.

While Lapid has called for a return to negotiations, he shares Netanyahu's skepticism about the lack of a partner, saying this week, "I don't think the Arabs want peace.

"The majority of Israelis came to the conclusion that there will be no new Middle East," Lapid said over cappuccino here last month. "What we want is not a happy marriage but a decent divorce."

Instead, the change voters were seeking was more about the nature of politics itself.

"A lot of people are voting the way you invest in an Internet startup," said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based political consultant. "The CEOs have no experience, don't always have a business plan, but people say, 'What the hell, this is going to be the new Google, the new Facebook.' Some of those startups make it, some don't - it's more of a gut feeling than looking at something and saying this makes sense."

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