Israel Elections: Prime Minister Yair Lapid faces an uphill battle

INSIDE POLITICS: Despite low expectations from detractors, can Israel's unlikely prime minister prove that, once again, yes he can?

 PRIME MINISTER and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks to party members during Wednesday night’s conference in Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks to party members during Wednesday night’s conference in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

“So many people belittled us, so many commentators sat in the studios explaining there was no chance and it wouldn’t happen. But you believed, and thanks to you – it happened,” Yair Lapid told an admiring crowd of close to 2,000 Yesh Atid supporters on Wednesday night in Tel Aviv, as he launched his election campaign.

This was the first time the Yesh Atid crowd had gathered since Lapid became prime minister last month, so it was more like a victory celebration, even though elections are 90 days away. He was welcomed like a rock star, with drums beating, enthusiastic chanting, and more than a sprinkling of flattering speeches.

“Today we are fulfilling a dream. We are the ruling party, and the prime minister is Yair Lapid.”

Israels Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen

“Today we are fulfilling a dream. We are the ruling party, and the prime minister is Yair Lapid,” Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen, No. 2 on Lapid’s list, told a boisterous audience. In less than 90 days, that dream could easily be shattered, but that prospect didn’t seem to mar the festivities.

Israeli politics' most underestimated figure

Lapid is indeed one of the most underestimated figures in Israeli politics. Ever since he first became a politician in 2012, he has been the target of jokes, ridicule and insults. The former TV presenter, who doesn’t have a high school degree or significant military background, has been derided as shallow and insubstantial all along the way. Back in 2013, when he first marked his goal to be the premiership, politicians and pundits portrayed him as a vain buffoon. A decade later, Lapid had the last laugh. Last month he became the 14th prime minister of Israel, a dream that most Israeli politicians do not achieve in a lifetime of trying.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid at launch of Yesh Atid's elections campaign. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Prime Minister Yair Lapid at launch of Yesh Atid's elections campaign. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Just like the little engine that could, with optimism, hard work and abundant resolve, Lapid slowly but steadily climbed the mountain of Israeli politics. In 10 years, he built a party from scratch and turned it into the second largest, with a vibrant and efficient grassroots organization with almost 20,000 registered supporters and 150 branches around the country.

Lapid’s Yesh Atid is the only party that comes even close to the Likud’s widespread presence on the ground, and the only one that can produce successful mass rallies like the one in Tel Aviv on Wednesday evening. Despite the heavy summer heat, hundreds of supporters waited patiently in line to take part in his celebration.

“We’re not a regular party, we’re a natural phenomenon. There is the creator of the world, and then there is Yair Lapid.”

Israeli Economy Minister Orna Barbivay

“We’re not a regular party, we’re a natural phenomenon,” Economy Minister Orna Barbivay told the audience, minutes before the party leader took the stage. “There is the creator of the world, and then there is Yair Lapid,” she went so far to proclaim, granting a valuable gift to Lapid’s rivals, who like to depict his party as a North Korea-style personality cult. Yesh Atid is regularly criticized for its lack of internal democracy and for being a one-man show, and rightly so: Lapid has never put himself up for reelection and has declared himself the leader until 2025; other members of his list are handpicked based on their loyalty, and those who are not – usually don’t survive.

Fair share of betrayals

However, Lapid has also had his share of betrayals and stabs in the back in recent years. In 2020, he suffered two major personal blows. First, Benny Gantz, his partner for three election campaigns, abandoned him to form a government with Benjamin Netanyahu, breaking up their Blue and White Party alliance, the strongest party the center-left camp has had in 20 years. Half a year later, Ofer Shelah, his closest Yesh Atid comrade and one of the party’s architects and founders, challenged his leadership and declared “Lapid will never become prime minister.”

But just like the little engine, he was undeterred, and continued to huff and puff “I think I can” as he pulled his train over the top of the mountain. He reached the first peak in 2021, with the formation of the government with Naftali Bennett, which ended Netanyahu’s 12-year rule.

Just like with Gantz two years before, Lapid made a rare decision, seemingly devoid of ego, to give up his place at the top and move to second place. He acknowledged the risk that his part of the rotation agreement with Bennett might never be fulfilled, but he assumed he would gain points just for his contribution in replacing Netanyahu – and he was right. By orchestrating the so-called change coalition, Lapid earned the respect of the center-left bloc: Yesh Atid is currently polling at 22-24 seats, a rise of 30% compared to the 16 seats it got in the last election.

Eventually, Bennett kept his word, and gentlemanly transferred the premiership to Lapid when the government collapsed in late June. The poor circumstances turned Lapid into only a caretaker leading a transitional government. Nevertheless, it put him in the history books and in the Prime Minister’s Office, the best place to be for an election campaign, with quick access to the top of the headlines.

A month with missteps and bumps

LAPID OUTLINED a goal of zero mistakes for the campaign, but his first month in office has already seen some bumps and missteps: The successful Biden visit that launched his tenure was quickly overshadowed by a flare-up in tensions with Russia, and this week, after months of quiet, residents of the Gaza border communities were put under military curfew, for fear of retaliation for an IDF operation against the Islamic Jihad in the West Bank.

Also this week, Lapid broke the decades-old ambiguity policy regarding Israel’s nuclear weaponry, while addressing the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and speaking of the country’s “other capabilities.”

He then angered haredi and religious tweeters by launching his campaign during “the Nine Days” ahead of Tisha Be’av, days dedicated in religious circles to mourning the destruction of the Temples, and reportedly planned a private family vacation on Tisha Be’av itself. Lapid’s potential voters probably do not know, let alone care, about any of these Jewish traditions, but as prime minister he is expected to respect all the sectors in Israeli society.

These were not major errors, but they were unnecessary, and he has at least two rivals waiting to jump on every mistake: Netanyahu and Gantz.

Election challenges: Netanyahu, Gantz and a failing Left

Lapid is now once again surrounded by negative campaigns reckoning that he can’t: that he is both unfit for the job and incapable of forming a government after the elections.

On the one hand, the Likud campaign states that he won’t have a coalition without the Joint List, and from the other side, Gantz and his new partner, Gideon Sa’ar, are sending the same message: Lapid won’t be able to form a government, so it’s wiser to vote for us.

So far, the joint Blue and White/New Hope campaign has failed to gain traction, and hasn’t affected Yesh Atid’s support at all. The joint campaign’s main hope for further momentum lies in the hands of Gadi Eisenkot, the former IDF chief of staff who is being courted by them and Lapid and has yet to decide if and how to jump into the political water.

But Lapid has another challenge, on his Left, which could determine the chances of him defending his chair. Meretz and the Labor Party are both polling quite close to the electoral threshold, and Labor chairwoman Merav Michaeli is adamantly rejecting all the calls to create a technical bloc that could protect them. If one of the left-wing parties fails to pass the threshold, dozens of thousands of votes will go down the drain and will bring Netanyahu and his bloc closer to the 61 majority he is seeking.

The same applies to the Arab parties that compose the Joint List, which could decide to break up due to political and ideological differences. Every lost vote in the Arab sector could affect Lapid’s future.

Lapid, an eternal optimist, pledged to his fans this week: “We will win the elections again,” even though in the current polling map it seems almost like a mission impossible. Netanyahu is getting stronger and closer to 61, and Gantz and Sa’ar are likely to divide the opposite bloc, and plan to challenge Lapid’s leadership by forming an alternate government with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

However, as Lapid’s whole political career has been about exceeding low expectations, there is a chance that once again he will prove that yes he can.