(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
When Yesh Atid ran for the first time in the 2013 election, its leader, Yair Lapid, said he would demand the education portfolio for himself following the formation of the government.
Asked by The Jerusalem Post ahead of the election if he would demand the Foreign Ministry for himself and the Education Ministry for his number two, Shai Piron, if his party did unexpectedly well, Lapid acted like the possibility had never even entered his mind.
After Yesh Atid won a surprising 19 seats, Lapid came under pressure to take the Finance portfolio. After all, he transitioned into politics by writing a parting column from journalism under the title “Where is the money?” Lapid could not have missed the opportunity to run the country’s economy after running a socioeconomic-focused campaign, but there was no doubt that the skill set of the British-accented journalist who spent much of his childhood in London was much more suited for the Foreign Ministry.
Though his aides will deny it, the job Lapid campaigned for in this year’s election was opposition leader. He knew the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties were en route back to the government, and that even if he would consider sitting in a government with them, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made had made it clear he was not wanted.
Opposition leader is a formal statutory post with its own protocol. The opposition leader meets all key visiting dignitaries, and doors are open to him around the world. In private conversations, Lapid has admitted he wanted Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog to enter Netanyahu’s government so he could be the opposition leader and the alternative to the prime minister waiting on a white horse to save Israel.
Herzog did not give Lapid that satisfaction. But Lapid is taking it anyway.
In the Knesset and the public discourse, Lapid is setting his own agenda, often making headlines the less charismatic and more diplomatic Herzog cannot.
Last week, Lapid spent a week in the United States where he tried to take away Herzog’s role as the de facto foreign minister of the opposition to Netanyahu.
In the US, he met with senior administration officials including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Robert Malley, who is in charge of Israel on the National Security Council. Lapid met with top senators from Lindsey Graham to Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker to Chuck Schumer.
He spoke at high-level events in front of thousands of people at The Jerusalem Post Conference and AJC Global Forum and to senior foreign-policy journalists at the Brookings Institute.
During the visit, he heard repeatedly about the deterioration in Israel-US relations under President Barack Obama and Netanyahu. He raised the issues of Iran and BDS, citing the need to fight both under a united front with no opposition and coalition.
But, on the Palestinian issue, he differentiated himself from Netanyahu, promoting the idea of an American-sponsored, Egyptian-hosted regional summit. In a diplomatic plan he revealed exclusively at The Jerusalem Post Conference, he ruled out further direct talks with the Palestinians, thereby differentiating himself from Herzog, as well.
Sources present in Lapid’s meetings said he was received well and treated as a potential future prime minister. The very fact that he received such meetings was an indication that his hosts saw it as a serious possibility that the next alternative to Netanyahu will have to come from a candidate who portrays himself as centrist rather than the leader of the Center-Left.
Lapid’s associates said he would continue to make his voice heard as Israel comes under attack for Operation Protective Edge later this month and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Building himself up as a statesman abroad on matters of Israeli consensus, while remaining a fighting opposition at home, could help Lapid present himself as a serious alternative in the next election.
In that race, Lapid intends to run not for education minister, opposition leader, finance minister or even foreign minister.
For the first time, he will present himself as a candidate for prime minister.
If Lapid succeeds, his US trip in general and his Jerusalem Post Conference speech in particular will be viewed in retrospect as the opening shot that guaranteed the leader of Yesh Atid truly has a future.