Tuesday will mark the anniversary of the swearing-in of the government that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not want.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett forced Netanyahu to form a coalition without haredim, and then-Labor chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich insisted on keeping her party in the opposition.
A year later, Netanyahu sits in the middle chair at the middle table reserved for the prime minister in the Knesset plenum. But the agenda being implemented is not his own.
This week, the Knesset passed an electoral reform package for Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, voted to draft ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students for Lapid and Bennett, and approved a referendum bill for Bennett.
In closed conversations this week, Likud ministers and MKs were gloomy. They voted for the first two bills, even though they disagreed with them due to their concerns about losing the party’s historic bond with the haredim. And although Likud MKs sponsored the referendum bill, its passage reminded them of the concessions being made to the Palestinians by their government behind their backs.
The Likud politicians complained that although Netanyahu is prime minister, the real leader blazing his agenda through the Knesset, the cabinet, the Treasury and behind the scenes in negotiations with the Palestinians is Lapid, whose name means torch in Hebrew.
In an interview at his Knesset office this week, Lapid declared victory over the passage of the bills and expressed confidence that his party would do more to change the character of the state – and perhaps even its borders – in the government’s second year in office.
Lapid boasted that out of the five main promises his party made ahead of last year’s election, four were already being implemented: The electoral system was changed, the conscription bill was passed, diplomatic talks with the Palestinians were restarted, and educational reforms are being carried out.
The only one of the five that he said has not been done was lowering the cost of housing market – a goal that he said required a lot more work.
“I was thrilled that we passed two really important bills this week and fulfilled core principle of Yesh Atid, but I can’t be happy yet, because there is still a lot of work to be done to bring the haredim into the labor market in the right way.”
Lapid said he also could not be happy, because of the behavior of Labor chairman Isaac Herzog, who boycotted all three votes in the Knesset while building an alliance with Shas and United Torah Judaism that could serve him following the next election.
Shas leader Aryeh Deri even said he wants Herzog to be the next prime minister.
“It pisses me off that ‘Buji’ [Herzog] didn’t come to vote on the draft,” he said. “Not everything is about politics. If his way of becoming an alternative to Netanyahu is to sell his soul to Shas and lose his spine at the same time, he doesn’t understand Israelis. There is not a single Labor voter who wants ‘Buji’ to befriend the convicted felon Deri, and who doesn’t want haredim to serve.”
Lapid predicted that current haredi anger will pass, as more people from the sector enter the workforce.
He said he respected haredi frustration but blamed it on “totally misled feelings that someone has harmed their way of life.”
When asked what his party will try to advance over the coming year, Lapid said without hesitation: Civil marriage. A bill sponsored by Yesh Atid MKs Aliza Lavie and Ruth Calderon would create a secular marriage track that would grant couples the legal rights of marriage, without forcing them to go through the rabbinate.
“We want to enable people who love each other to live together in a way recognized by the state, without the rabbinate’s approval, whether they are gay, Reform, Conservative or secular,” he said. “We think it’s another major change that’s needed in Israeli society. The current situation splits Israeli society and disconnects many people from around the world from Israel. It’s our duty to change this.”
Asked whether such a bill had a chance of passing, he said he was undaunted.
“Many people told me we would be crushed on our way to pass the draft law as others were before, but we still made it happen,” he said. “We have proven that we are very good at getting things done. Sometimes it takes pushing and shoving and dirty political hard labor to achieve the most pure goals.”
Lapid promised that civil registration could take place without challenging Israel’s identity. He noted that there are already some 6,000 alternative ceremonies a year.
“People just want to be acknowledged as a couple,” he said. “Marriage is before God, while this is before the state. Both are symbolic. There is no logic that the country demands that people be acknowledged by the rabbinate, an institute they don’t believe in, not the state that they do believe in.”
Speaking before rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip intensified Wednesday, Lapid said he expected the diplomatic process with the Palestinians to dominate headlines over the coming months.
“The government, the coalition and the party will all be tested,” he said. “There will be obstacles, so we will have to be determined.
We said we would not sit in a coalition that will not push the peace process forward. I will push forward for Israel to do everything possible and necessary to keep the thing alive.”
Lapid said Israelis are supposed to be upset with the Americans, for going too far to please the Palestinians.
An Israel Democracy Institute poll this week found that 74 percent of Israeli Jews believe Israel is being pressured more by the US, 12% said both sides are being equally pressured, and only 5% said the Palestinians are being more pressured.
He blasted US President Barack Obama’s interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg ahead of Netanyahu’s visit, in which Obama was critical of Israel’s peacemaking efforts.
“I thought the timing was horrible,” he said. “I hoped it would not hurt Obama’s meeting with the prime minister. Apparently it did the reverse. All the steam was blown before the meeting, which according to my understanding went well.”
Lapid said he was not surprised to see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas toughen his stance a month before the deadline that US Secretary of State John Kerry set to reach an American framework proposal.
“Abbas has his own backyard,” he said. “In the Middle East, people negotiate while also negotiating with the extremists in their own backyard. Both sides will toughen up before the paper is laid down.”
Once an agreement is reached, Lapid said, it will be the duty of his party’s voters to push the government to pass it, as well as the people in a national referendum. He expressed confidence that they could succeed on both fronts.
“All those who favor the twostate solution will have to do more than stay home and be bitter,” he said. “They will have to go out into the field, not leave the streets only to the people who are against it, like they have in the past. That is the way to succeed.”
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