Is the torch petering out?

How Lapid is handling his shift from political darling to national whipping boy.

Lapid looking sullen 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Lapid looking sullen 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
When US President Barack Obama came to Israel two months ago, the focus of the reports were on him improving his relations with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and reaching out to the Israeli people.
But there was also one moment when Obama offered a keen observation that may have proven prophetic. It came when he had just left Air Force One at Ben-Gurion Airport and encountered a long line of newly sworn-in Israeli cabinet ministers who had come to greet him.
Many of the ministers came with prepared messages for the president. Others received personal comments from Obama, who had clearly done his homework. This was especially evident in his message to Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
“My wife always says,” Obama smiled, “be careful what you wish for, you might get it.”
Two months later, Lapid has gone from being the kind of national darling who can’t be criticized in the mainstream media that Obama once was in the US to the villain targeted my mass protests. The boxer who idolizes Muhammad Ali has now become a political punching bag.
A Shiluv poll on Channel 2 revealed that 50 percent of the population considers his appointment a mistake and 28% of Yesh Atid voters do not intend to vote for him again. A Dialog poll in Haaretz found that only 19% of the public is satisfied with Lapid’s performance, compared to 53% who are dissatisfied.
Lapid put a positive spin on the polls in an Army Radio interview Thursday morning. He said the fact that Yesh Atid has only fallen by two to three seats despite all the attacks on him proves the party’s staying power.
When asked by Ynet whether he believes Netanyahu gave him the Finance Ministry in an effort to destroy his political career, Lapid did not bite.
“I am familiar with such conspiracy theories,” he said. “I don’t think anyone tried to trick me. I was given an opportunity, which I earned by winning 19 mandates, to change the country. It is actually even bigger, because it is such a difficult time for the state and I have the opportunity to take it out of the mud. That is something I welcome.”
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert was accused of appointing Amir Peretz as defense minister in 2006 to harm him. But while Peretz had no understanding of security issues before taking the job, Lapid had been meeting regularly with economic experts for more than a year before entering the Treasury. And unlike Peretz, who worked under the specter of an expected comeback by Ehud Barak, Lapid controls his party and is the strongest minister in the government.
A longtime friend of the finance minister who is very close to him said Lapid does not blame the public or the press for being too quick to judge him. He expressed optimism that Lapid would overcome the current tough period and prove himself over time.
“Our own expectations were also high, but we know there is no hocus pocus,” the Lapid confidant said. “We believe the public is smart and realizes that he has just been on the job for two months, and he stopped the bleeding [in his support]. He is not feeling pressure now, just like he didn’t during the campaign when we fell to six seats. He does not get frustrated. He keeps his cool.”
But the confidant admitted that the demonstrations outside Lapid’s north Tel Aviv home have harmed his family. He said Lapid has been working 20 hour days, regularly going to sleep at 3 or 4 a.m.
Though Lapid’s hair has gotten whiter, the confidant could not say whether it was due to work or age. He said that either way it compliments him and that even after the longest nights, Lapid has never given up on his hour-long daily morning workout.
The confidant, who spends a considerable amount of time with Lapid, insists he has never heard him say that he regrets not taking the Foreign Ministry instead of becoming finance minister. Despite reports that the Foreign Ministry was never really on the table, the confidant said Lapid would have received it had he demanded it.
“He knows he could have gone to China, had cocktails and gotten some nice headlines,” the confidant said. “He knew he would be more popular if he picked the Foreign Ministry. He took a job in which pleasing everyone is impossible. He took it because he wants to change things, and every day he is more convinced that he had to take the job.”
Haaretz reported recently that Lapid’s advisers were working to make him prime minister in two years, but the confidant calls the report completely inaccurate.
He said Lapid believes governments must last longer, and he wants four years as finance minister to prove himself.
“What we are doing takes time and advancing elections is wrong,” he said. “We want Israel to have the kind of stability needed to let ministers get their jobs done. Having elections every two years is bad for the economy. He doesn’t hide that he will run for prime minister in four years, but other candidates will, too.”
The Dialog poll, which was taken amid reports of inflated food and clothing budgets in the prime minister’s residences, found that just as many Israelis were dissatisfied with Netanyahu as they were with Lapid.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who did well in the poll, could try to use his post as a stepping stone to the premiership. Another former IDF chief of staff, Gaby Ashkenazi, just took what has become the first step toward entering politics by joining Facebook.
But perhaps Obama was hedging his bets on the future when he told Lapid something on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport that was not as widely reported.
“We’ll be working together quite a bit,” he said.