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Generals out, activists in: Israel parliament gets new look

Jan. 24, 2013 8:48 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 25, 2013 2:37 P.M.)
By: Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- Israel's parliament, long heavy with retired generals, is getting a new look, with a freshman class that includes two youth protest leaders, an Ethiopian immigrant, a high tech millionaire and more women than ever.

Thanks to the surprise second place finish of a new centrist party, as well as the success of a new far-right group, the 120-member Knesset will have a record 47 first time lawmakers and a record 26 women, including a West Bank settler mother of 11.

"The interesting thing is that a generation of generals has been replaced by new politicians coming from social activism, education and health, and that there are many young people," said Stav Shaffir, 27, of the center-left Labour Party, whose new leader Shelly Yachimovich, 52, is a former TV journalist.

The incoming parliament will still have five former generals, including two chiefs of staff. In 1992, when ex-chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, there were nine.

Shaffir was one of the young leaders of protests that swept Israeli cities in 2011 - a so-called "cottage cheese revolution" against high food and housing prices that ultimately damaged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the polls.

Those protests also helped Yesh Atid, a new centrist, secularist party focused on bread-and-butter issues, which tapped into a reservoir of public frustration over budget-straining state stipends for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A second place finish in Tuesday's national election gave 19 seats to the party, led by former TV news anchor Yair Lapid, 49, bringing in the largest cohort of newcomers. It is being courted as a key coalition partner by Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud-Beitenu bloc won 31 seats, 11 fewer than last time in 2009.

Diversity

Yesh Atid's candidates are an eclectic bunch. They include Shimon Solomon, who came to Israel as a child in the covert Operation Moses airlift that brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews from refugee camps in Africa. He became a major in Israel's paratroops and a social worker.

Another Yesh Atid legislator, Rabbi Dov Lipman, immigrated from the United States in 2004. He became a deputy mayor in Beit Shemesh, tackling what the party's website calls religious extremism in a central Israeli town that made headlines when ultra-Orthodox Jews spat at a schoolgirl they deemed immodestly dressed.

Not all the newcomers are from the center and center-left. On the right wing, 40-year-old Naftali Bennett was widely seen as the main star of a lackluster election campaign, even if his rise has since been eclipsed by that of Lapid.

As head of the Jewish Home party, the charismatic high-tech millionaire and religious Jew advocates annexation of chunks of the occupied West Bank, dismissing as a "dead end" efforts to achieve a two-state solution to the conflict with Palestinians.

Jewish Home won 12 seats, fewer than first forecast but enough to establish it as a new political force on equal parliamentary footing with the veteran ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a traditional kingmaker in Israeli coalition-building.

One of Jewish Home's new legislators, Orit Struk, is a settler leader in the West Bank city of Hebron, long a flashpoint of Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

The 52-year-old mother of 11, a pro-settlement lobbyist in the outgoing parliament, told Reuters she sees her new Knesset mission as two-fold: "I hope to promote a social agenda, and a Land of Israel agenda. I want to promote settlement in the Land of Israel, and Judea and Samaria (the occupied West Bank) are a part of Israel, just as Tel Aviv is."
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