It is hard to remember in a country with such an intense news cycle, but the current election began on December 2 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing his finance minister, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, of conspiring with haredi politicians to topple him.
Reports at the time said Lapid was trying to form an alternate government that would allow him to become prime minister without initiating an election. Netanyahu responded by firing Lapid and then-justice minister Tzipi Livni, who then joined Labor in the Zionist Union.
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog has hinted he would prefer haredi parties to Yesh Atid if he formed a coalition, as does Netanyahu. And if anyone thought Lapid and haredi parties could coexist in a coalition, Shas leader Arye Deri and United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’acov Litzman have ruled that out.
Is it therefore inevitable that Lapid will be the head of the opposition in the next Knesset? He doesn’t think so. In an interview near his Tel Aviv home, he recalls that six weeks before the last election, polls predicted six mandates for Yesh Atid – which ended up winning 19. He looks forward to the future, and when he looks back at the past, sounds more amused than bitter.
“I did my best to behave well until the very end, because that is what my mother taught me to do,” he says. “I told Netanyahu when he fired me: ‘Do you really think I conspired with Litzman?’ Litzman has since told the haredi press that he made up the story because he knew Netanyahu would believe him.”
Lapid came to the interview from Ma’asiyahu Prison in Ramle, where he unveiled his anti-corruption plan. It was no coincidence that he chose as his backdrop the jail where Deri was incarcerated, and that he selected a time when the Likud and Zionist Union were accusing each other of corruption.
Asked if Netanyahu is corrupt, Lapid says it was an act of corruption to call an election and “blow NIS 2 billion just to have a better coalition and not have to argue.” While Netanyahu likes to compare himself to Winston Churchill, Lapid has started calling him Caesar.
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“The prime minister is morally corrupt because he puts his interest ahead of the interest of the state,” Lapid maintains. “This hedonism is unbearable in a country with such social gaps. These endless stories about [high spending at the Prime Minister’s Residence for] ice cream and water in swimming pools, and the country having to pay to maintain three homes, are more than just a bad example. It’s breaking the basic contract between a citizen and his country.”
Lapid is also critical of Herzog for remaining silent under oath when he was investigated in a 1999 scandal in which he was accused of illegally raising money for Labor’s election campaign, using nonprofit organizations.
So if Netanyahu and Herzog have behaved in a way he sees corrupt, how can Lapid enter a government led by either of them? He says he will campaign against corruption regardless of what happens when a coalition is built after the March 17 election.
“This is why people didn’t do anything about corruption for so long,” he says. “People tell me, but I might have to sit with Netanyahu, with Herzog, maybe with Shas at the last moment. I say, it is time to stop this and do what is right.”
Lapid gets defensive when asked about his own ties to convicted former prime minister Ehud Olmert, the best friend of his father, the late justice minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid.
“Olmert is not connected to me or my party,” he says. “I haven’t spoken to him since his indictment.
My father believed in his innocence; I thought it was not my place to be the court of law. The other parties cannot pin anything on us.”
Lapid also distances himself on the diplomatic issue from Olmert, who as prime minister met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas more than 100 times. He intends to publish a diplomatic plan next week that will call for a regional approach to “divorce, not marry” the Palestinians.
“Abbas is not a partner for bilateral talks, because he can’t sign anything as he’s too afraid – and rightly so – of the Arab world,” he says. “Abbas can’t be seen as betraying Palestinian interests. We need to go to the Arab League and start negotiating with them. Let’s not talk peace but about an agreement that gives us security and them a state. The Arab world is capable of telling the Palestinians this is good enough.”
Lapid would also want to negotiate with Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. He says he doesn’t care that Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman have also adopted a regional approach, and spoken about using moderate Arab states to help end the conflict with the Palestinians.
“I don’t care about credit,” he declares. “This is the only tangible thing on the table.”
Another issue on which Netanyahu and Lapid surprisingly agree is electoral reform. Lapid endorsed Netanyahu’s plan to pass a law at the beginning of the next Knesset that would make it much harder to topple a government, and would try to ensure that governments last four years.
“The damage of going to elections every two years is worse than having a Knesset that is confrontational with the prime minister and his government,” Lapid says.
But Lapid opposes a proposal by Netanyahu to automatically have the leader of the largest party form the next government. He also does not back electing part of the Knesset via direct regional elections, calling it “a beautiful idea that is not practical in such a small country.”
When Lapid put together Yesh Atid’s Knesset list, he kept in mind the need for diversity and for candidates who could represent different sectors. He has nothing but praise for US-born Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman, even though he placed him 17th on the list, the same place as last time.
“It’s not a demotion to stay in the same place on the list,” he says. “I think the world of Dov. Sometimes the people you are closest to are the ones you can talk to and will understand when you tell them that you wanted to place them higher, but couldn’t.”
Lapid is appreciative that Lipman organized a Super Bowl party last Sunday night, where the two of them came and watched with the party’s American immigrant supporters. He says that even if there had not been a party, he would have stayed up all night to watch the game – and the only reason he left the party at halftime was that his wife wanted to go home to sleep.
“I’m glad we gathered our English-speaking supporters and gave them chicken wings,” he says. “Of course I watched the rest of the game at home after I left. I cheered for Seattle, even though [New England Patriots owner Robert] Kraft is a friend of Israel.”
Lapid says he is convinced Lipman will be in the next Knesset – and not because of the rumors that if Yesh Atid is in the opposition, the party’s former ministers will quit politics. He says the 400-people polls seen in newspapers are unprofessional, while the surveys he initiates of 1,800 people, followed by serious focus groups, tell a different story.
“Both Dov and I know that he’s going to get in, because we’ve been through it,” he says. “We know what the real polls are.”
Lapid also praises Lipman for taking steps that have brought hundreds of haredim into the workforce.
He insists the Knesset decision that enabled haredim to seek work by ending the infamous “Torah is my trade” condition for IDF deferments will not be restored, no matter who is in the next coalition.
As for the more controversial criminal sanctions on haredi draft dodgers that Yesh Atid passed, he says the courts would prevent them from being overturned because the law of compulsory national service cannot be applied to some sectors and not others.
“The haredim just have to accept that most of what we passed is not reversible,” he says. “I think Shas knows that even if the political system tried to reverse it, the Supreme Court would reverse it and there would be rage on the Israeli streets. They are listening to the voices from the young haredim who like it that while Torah prodigies are still in the yeshivas, they can go to work and support their families.”
If the key clauses in the draft bill cannot be overturned, does that mean Yesh Atid and haredi parties can coexist in the same coalition? Lapid does not rule it out.
“I won’t play coalition games because I am living proof that it is bogus by nature,” he says. “I keep telling people instead of playing coalition games in your head, you have an opportunity to express your values and fight for them.”
Lapid points out that just like no one predicted that Yesh Atid would win 19 seats and pass a haredi conscription bill, he will surprise everyone again. He says Yesh Atid is more organized than other parties, and unlike last time, it has plenty of state-supported campaign funds to help get out the vote.
“I’ve been reading my own political obituaries since I came into politics,” he says. “We have proven them wrong before, and we will again. I will enjoy the apologies afterward.”
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