Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid was an amateur boxer before entering politics, and pointed out with pride his picture of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky on the wall of his home office in his first interview with the English media which he granted The Jerusalem Post shortly after entering politics in 2012.
Back then, Lapid was like the movie boxer, looking up to the 72 stairs outside the Philadelphia Art Museum that have become known as the “Rocky steps” since the movies and just hosted the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl victory party.
In his six years in politics, Lapid has climbed those steps quickly, becoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s finance minister and then a self-proclaimed shadow foreign minister and leading figure in the opposition.
All along, Lapid has seen himself as the primary alternative to Netanyahu and his eventual successor. He made a mistake by saying that publicly before he even entered the Knesset. But the more he said it, the more people believed it, at least according to the polls.
Despite those polls, arguments were made that when the time for the next election comes, a former IDF chief of staff could still swoop in, take over the leadership of the Zionist Union from the struggling Avi Gabbay, and become the main opponent to Netanyahu in the next election. After all, aside from Ehud Olmert, who won the 2006 election on Ariel Sharon’s coattails, no non-general has taken the Center or Left to victory since Golda Meir in 1973.
Those arguments can no longer be made after Tuesday, when the police’s Lahav 443 National Crime Unit recommended Netanyahu’s indictment
and revealed that Lapid was its star witness. Whether it was reluctantly, as Lapid claims, or on purpose, as others believe, the former boxer is now in the ring.
Whether Netanyahu will be one of the boxers in the fight for the next premiership will be revealed only in several months, when Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit decides his legal and political fate. But thanks in part to the police, Lapid will be there, and he won’t be holding back any punches against a bruised Netanyahu or whoever the Likud will have fight in his place.
NETANYAHU LOYALISTS have said the Lahav 443 unit made a massive mistake by making Lapid the face of its investigation and not the prime minister’s former staff and personal friends as previously thought. Those loyalists intend to use that mistake to Netanyahu’s advantage and paint the probe as political.
They will try to stain Lapid as a lowly political opportunist or, as coalition chairman David Amsalem called him, a “pathetic snitch.”
How Lapid handles those jabs will determine his success or failure in the key months ahead. One thing he has made clear is that he will not take them sitting down.
Lapid could have decided to lay low and allow the public to internalize the serious accusations against the prime minister. He could have avoided interviews, like the one he granted to Channel 2 Thursday night, and stopped making statements about Netanyahu’s cases, using his role in the criminal investigation as a legitimate excuse.
Netanyahu’s associates have said that was his approach when he ousted Olmert by helping organize protests of reserved soldiers from the Second Lebanon War that were not seen as connected to him and by secretly making deals with Shas and United Torah Judaism rabbis to not enter a Kadima-led coalition.
Instead, Lapid responded to attacks from Netanyahu and even from Amsalem, whom he could have easily ignored or delegated reacting to him to junior MKs in his faction. Lapid accused Amsalem of talking like a criminal and vowed to not be intimidated.
“We will not let you make this a country where honest people are scared of telling the truth,” Lapid said, in a statement that is sure to be part of his next election campaign.
Lapid has said he had no choice but to testify when he was summoned, and he did not consider political calculations. But no one summoned him to Channel 2, to Facebook, or to Twitter, and he did not have to dirty himself by fighting back the way he has.
This approach is a very big risk and a 180-degree shift in Lapid’s political strategy.
Until now, Lapid has tried to woo Likud voters by shifting rightward, visiting settlements, putting on a kippa at the Western Wall, and speaking about Netanyahu with fraternal respect. Lapid found a way to work into every speech that Netanyahu “hasn’t always been this way” and that the investigations have made him go astray and act in a way that does not fit with his past leadership.
Now Lapid is going after Netanyahu, even though he is not yet on the ropes, according to the polls. The Likud has risen in support and Yesh Atid has fallen, according to a survey taken for Channel 2 by pollsters Mina Tzemach and Mano Geva.
Lapid will challenge the perception that Netanyahu is an irreplaceable prime minister who is among the few Israelis respected around the world, along with actresses Gal Gadot and Natalie Portman and basketball player Omri Casspi.
He will remind voters that Netanyahu was called a liar by the Trump administration, that Russia and China have defied him on Iran and that the prime minister has poor relations with US Democrats, liberal American Jews, the European Union and the United Nations.
“At least he is doing well in Africa,” is the kind of cynical statement Lapid is expected to make in his public statements in the months ahead.
THERE ARE three possible developments that could work in Lapid’s favor during the time between the police recommendations and the attorney-general’s decision.
Netanyahu said repeatedly this week that his government would complete its term, which ends November 7, 2019. But he could still decide to initiate an election just ahead of a pre-indictment hearing with Mandelblit, which is a few months away yet could be stalled by a prime minister who spends so much time abroad.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who announced Tuesday night that he would keep his Kulanu Party in the coalition until Mandelblit’s decision, could change his mind after encountering blackmail from MKs who know that Netanyahu is especially susceptible to arm-twisting now and that the finance minister pays the bills.
There can also be significant progress in the investigation of the “submarine affair,” in which Netanyahu is not currently a suspect. If Lapid’s testimony in the “expensive gift affair” was taken so seriously by police, and he says openly that Netanyahu’s role in purchasing the submarines was corrupt, the police could be persuaded to embroil Netanyahu in that much more serious case which involves Israel’s national security.
Whether or not any of those developments take place, Lapid and Netanyahu now both have their gloves on, and only one of them can win. Whoever gets the political knockout will be the champion.