Israel elections: Lapid, Netanyahu's boxing match officially begins - analysis

Lapid’s goal is to establish himself as a true leader and competitor to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

 Israeli foreign minister and Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid walks next to Head of opposition and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu at the assembly hall for a special session in memory of Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, on November 8, 2021.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Israeli foreign minister and Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid walks next to Head of opposition and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu at the assembly hall for a special session in memory of Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, on November 8, 2021.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The political message of Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s speech at the Israel Bar Association Conference on Monday was that he has officially joined the boxing match that is Israel’s election season.

Up until this point, Lapid had been careful not to mix his roles as prime minister and head of a party running in the election. As party leader, he made campaign statements at the beginning of faction meetings and at party events, and, perhaps wisely, refrained from “dirtying” himself with politics at official events that he attended as prime minister. Lapid’s goal was to establish himself as a true leader and competitor to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and to distance himself from the image of a politician taking advantage of his temporary role for campaign purposes.

But, if that was stage one, it is now over. With Israel waking up from its August slumber and the holidays just a few weeks away, Lapid figured that this is the time to start playing hardball. Lapid, as prime minister, was given a special slot to speak at the conference, and he took full advantage of it to land a barrage of punches on the Likud and its leader.

Lapid lambasted Netanyahu for famously attacking the justice system with masked Likud members standing behind him on the eve of his trial. Lapid also attacked MKs David (Dudi) Amsalem and Yariv Levin, both potential justice ministers, for ridiculing and taunting the justices.

Netanyahu’s leading campaign message so far has been that only the Likud can form a stable government. Lapid’s counterargument was that, while Israel’s law enforcement system is in need of reform, the Likud’s openly stated goal is not to reform the system, but to bring it to its knees.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and alternate Prime Minister, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and alternate Prime Minister, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In other words, the claim, which was also made earlier at the conference by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, was the following: A fully right-wing government led by the Likud will cancel the High Court’s power to enforce the law when the government or Knesset cross the line. When the government has a functioning majority in the Knesset, to a large extent it controls Israel’s legislative branch. With the complete politicization of the election of judges and the Knesset’s ability to overturn High Court rulings, the executive branch – more precisely, the prime minister, if Netanyahu wins the election – will control the other two branches of government.

That is no longer democracy.

Lapid's speech against Netanyahu was effective - here's why:

The Likud’s response to Lapid’s speech proved that it was effective.

“We condemn Lapid’s false accusation, which has no connection to reality. There is no room for the hysteria that Lapid is trying to create. Every citizen agrees that the law enforcement system is in need of reform, which will be done level-headedly and with utmost responsibility,” the Likud said.

The response was defensive, almost apologetic, which is uncharacteristic of the Likud. It did not mention Netanyahu, which is also rare. And the bottom line was a repetition of what Lapid and Sa’ar argued at the conference: that changes need to be made responsibly. And when one thinks of Amsalem as the next justice minister, responsibility is the last thing that comes to mind.

Furthermore, when it comes to “hysteria,” one cannot ignore that Netanyahu has been the one who is repeating a somewhat hysteric message, that “Lapid will form a government with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Joint List.”

The danger to the legal system will presumably play a central role in Yesh Atid’s campaign, and what better stage to push the message home than at a conference hosted by the Israel Bar Association, Lapid reasoned.

Between the lines, the message was clear: The gloves are off, and the bare-knuckled fight is about to begin. Lapid may have found a soft spot and will exploit it to the maximum – and the venue does not matter anymore.