Why is Yair Lapid quiet in Israeli election campaign?

Sometimes the best path to success at the ballot box is simply to sleepwalk through the campaign: say little, limit your appearances, make no mistakes, let the others make a mess of things.

Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz speaking with Blue and White Party supporters, 2019. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz speaking with Blue and White Party supporters, 2019.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
If one were to believe the Likud election campaign, one could be excused for thinking that this election pitted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Snow White's seven dwarfs.
And in this framing, the Likud knows exactly who they want cast in the role of Dopey: Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, someone they are presenting as a lightweight who – were he to lead the nation – could not even purchase COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, let alone deal with Iran, US President Joe Biden or Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Lapid, no one’s fool, isn’t taking the bait.
In fact, were Oprah Winfrey to have interviewed him on Sunday evening, rather than Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, and asked him, “If you were one of the seven dwarfs, which dwarf would you have liked to be?” he probably would have answered “Sleepy.”
Why Sleepy? Because sometimes the best path to success at the ballot box is simply to sleepwalk through the campaign: Say little, limit your appearances, make no mistakes, and let the others make a mess of things.
And that has largely characterized the Yesh Atid campaign up until now – keep Lapid in the background, similar to the way the Democrats kept Biden out of the spotlight in the final stretch of the US campaign.
There are other similarities between the two campaigns. For instance, one of Biden’s campaign themes was simply a return to normalcy. Lapid’s main motto is the country needs a “sane” government. Normal and sane are close cousins.
Travel around the country and you will not see Lapid’s visage smiling down at passing cars from that many high-rise office buildings. Turn on the radio and neither he, nor surrogates from his party, are giving endless interviews.
By contrast, hardly a day passes when either Netanyahu, Finance Minister Israel Katz, Education Minister Yoav Gallant or Environment Affairs Minister Gila Gamliel are not on one radio or television station or another.
Unlike Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, Lapid is not ruling out any coalition partners – with the exception of Netanyahu. Unlike Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman, he is not blasting the haredim. And unlike almost everyone else, he is not slamming his opponents – with the exception, of course, of an occasional zinger directed at Netanyahu. This time, Lapid’s campaign is of a different order.
Benny Gantz mastered this type of campaign during the days prior to the first election of the current cycle, when he came out of nowhere to win 35 seats and challenge Netanyahu – without having given a serious political interview or having really said anything of much substance on the stump, thereby enabling voters to see in him whatever they wanted to see.
Lapid has adopted a similar approach, though with some significant tweaks.
For example, while the public did not know much about Gantz in 2018 when he came onto the political scene – beyond the fact that he was a chief of staff, and Israelis at that time still had a weakness for chiefs of staff – the same cannot be said of Lapid.
Gantz, even before he gave his first political speech, was garnering 15 seats in the polls – a sign that Israelis took a shine to his personality, because at that point they knew nothing about his policies.
But Israelis do know Lapid: both his personality and his policies. He has been in the public eye since he started hosting a television talk show in the mid-1990s and his being in the Knesset since 2013.
Gantz was an unknown commodity whose initial campaign strategy was to keep his mouth shut and foster the image of someone everybody could connect to. The more he said, the more likely he would alienate potential supporters – so better just to keep as quiet as possible.
Lapid, by contrast, is a known quantity, so the benefits of his relative silence – he does give an interview here and there – are different. By virtue of eight years in the thick of politics, Lapid has already alienated his share of people. His interest in keeping a low profile is to deprive Netanyahu of a key electoral asset: being able to frame the election, again, as one of Netanyahu against the Left.
In a brief interview Sunday at a Channel 12 conference with anchor Yonit Levi, Lapid – who went to great pains to avoid saying with whom he would and would not sit in a coalition, and who refrained from blasting any of the other parties trying to unseat Netanyahu – said he would like to debate the prime minister.
But it is doubtful whether he really means it. Because for Lapid to get on a stage and go one-on-one against Netanyahu would be to frame this election as a two-man race, something he is very keen on avoiding. He is even playing down his own prime ministerial ambitions, saying it is more important to remove Netanyahu than for him to serve as the head of the government.
So why say he wants to debate Netanyahu? Because he knows the chances are slim the prime minister would agree to the challenge.
With two weeks to go before the election, Lapid’s low-profile strategy seems to be working: Since mid-January, he has gained about a seat a week in the polls, going from 13 to 20.
Lapid has managed so far to stay above the fray and let everyone else make a lot of noise and create a sense of chaos. This adds to the perception he wants to project: a sense that he can deliver the country a “sane” government and a sense of stability, something he is gambling the voters are hungering for.
Keep quiet, don’t stick your foot in your mouth, and don’t close off options. It’s a sleepy campaign, but judging by Yesh Atid’s steady rise in the polls, so far it has proven pretty effective.