Reporter's Notebook: Lapid's the tail. We're the dog.

Yesh Atid privately updated reporters on coalition talks, and Yair Lapid denied it all on Facebook. Is this new politics?

Yair Lapid 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yair Lapid 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi formed an alliance in coalition talks, and have been saying for weeks that they want to focus on “essential, meaningful” policy issues, not who gets which ministry. However, the clock is ticking and there’s a little over a week left for a government to be formed. It made sense that they’d get to the “dirty” stuff at this point, and that a party official would confirm it.
Why, then, did Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid publicly deny it all? In the film Wag the Dog, reporters breathlessly cover a war between the United States and Albania, using a heartbreaking clip of a sad and beautiful peasant girl. The war is a ruse – manufactured by a political spin doctor portrayed by Robert DeNiro and a Hollywood producer played by Dustin Hoffman – designed to cover up a presidential sex scandal. The peasant girl is an American actress in front of a green screen.
“Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog,” the movie’s tagline went.
After Wednesday night’s political games, it’s clear that Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid is the tail. The public – voters who put their faith in him, hoping for “new politics” – and journalists – desperate for any information from coalition talks taking place behind closed doors – are the dog.
We’ve been wagged.
On Wednesday night, I wrote the top political story for The Jerusalem Post, confident of its veracity: Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein said it’s legal for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to save the Foreign Ministry for MK Avigdor Liberman, but Lapid wants the position.
Netanyahu offered the Finance Ministry to Lapid, but Lapid has a pact with Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, who wants the portfolio.
At a quarter to midnight, I got a call from a top Yesh Atid official. The kind of official that spends hours with Lapid each day. The kind that has been feeding me and countless other reporters ostensibly accurate information for months.
“Yesh Atid, Bayit Yehudi and Kadima formed a bloc. That’s 33 MKs – two more than Likud Beytenu. We want the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry, and if we get it, we’ll support Netanyahu as prime minister for the next four-plus years,” she said.
I repeated the information back to make sure I understood it correctly, and then tried to contact a Bayit Yehudi spokesman for confirmation, to no avail.
I was left with a dilemma: The newspaper was going to print at any minute. Should I run with the story or ignore it? I decided to frantically call the Post offices and tell them to stop the presses. After all, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi have had an alliance for weeks now, and have steadfastly kept to it. This was “new politics,” as Bennett and Lapid would say. They hadn’t double-crossed each other once.
It’s important to note that the story that the Post ran quoted the Yesh Atid official almost word-for-word.
Reporter Rina Matzliach, who wrote the story for Channel 2 News’ website, did the same, but added in one little word – “ultimatum” – and then everything went haywire.
An hour later, it was too late to stop the presses a second time, when the same Yesh Atid source e-mailed me Lapid’s Facebook status on the issue.
“I saw the stories that Naftali Bennett and myself are giving an ultimatum to the prime minister on the issue of portfolios. It isn’t true, and it isn’t dignified. Netanyahu forms the government, and no one is giving him an ultimatum. This is a transparent attempt to distract from the real issues,” Lapid wrote.
Bennett also took to Facebook to deny the existence of an ultimatum, writing, “There is nothing like that. We’re working hard to help the prime minister form a new government that will work for the people of Israel.”
“Dumbfounded” would be the best word to describe my reaction. Was I crazy? Did I misunderstand the Yesh Atid source? A tweet from Haaretz reporter Jonathan Lis describing the same experience and calling Lapid’s party “pathetic,” confirmed my sanity, but failed to calm my nerves.
Facebook is a tool that both Bennett and Lapid have used wisely since their election campaigns began last year. Members of the social network feel that they’re getting the “truth” directly from the source when they read what party leaders have to say without going through a middleman – a.k.a. reporters. Yet, here they were taking advantage of the public’s faith in that direct communication in order to be dishonest.
It occurred to me that this is all semantics. Last week, Lapid told his Facebook followers that he is not boycotting haredim. However, he does not want to sit in a government with Shas or UTJ. In this case, he wants his bloc to get the foreign and finance portfolios, or else. But he won’t use the word “ultimatum.”
The next morning, the Yesh Atid official confirmed as much, saying that just because the parties are aligned and making demands doesn’t mean it has to be called an “ultimatum.”
“So what you told me last night is correct?” I said, repeating the information she had given me 10 hours earlier.
The response was an emphatic yes.
So this is “new politics”: Not using loaded words, like “ultimatum” and “boycott,” but doing exactly what they entail, while covering it up by talking about values.
Lapid played us all; the tail wagged the dog. At least now we know the rules of the game.