In Israeli elections, incoming Prime Minister Yair Lapid has head start

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The benefits of running for prime minister while serving as acting prime minister.

 FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid – he will be the one who meets and greets Biden. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid – he will be the one who meets and greets Biden.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

If, as now seems very likely, Yair Lapid will become the 14th person to serve as an Israeli prime minister, then the former television anchor can look back with a great deal of satisfaction on his achievements.

In a decade he created a new political party (Yesh Atid), turned that party into the second biggest in the land, and served as a finance minister in one government and as foreign minister in another.

Perhaps as impressive, and one contributing factor to his ability to chalk up all those other successes, is that he has not been harmed by the vicious barbs from political satirists aimed at him over the years.

Television satirists can seriously hobble politicians.

Dan Meridor’s image in the public and his efforts to emerge as a serious prime ministerial candidate in the late 1990s were damaged by a wicked portrayal of him as a wimp in the 1990s political satire program Hartzufim.

Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was hurt badly during the 2008 US presidential campaign by Tina Fey’s withering portrayal of her as an airhead on Saturday Night Live.

 All alone and likely on his way out. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset this week. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) All alone and likely on his way out. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset this week. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

And even Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s image was not helped at all by the buck-toothed, whiny portrayal of him on the popular satirical show Eretz Nehederet.

Lapid, too, has been the target of vicious barbs by the political satirists over the years, especially by Lior Schlein, who used to host a political satire show variously called Gav Ha’uma and Matzav Ha’uma. In episode after episode in the previous decade, Schlein portrayed Lapid as a shallow, empty suit who mouthed meaningless – and often contradictory – platitudes.

In one particular show in 2017, he said Lapid’s “life wisdom is derived from fortune cookies and tattoos,” and that the politician’s “dramatic intonation” made his “superficial populism” sound important.

Schlein was not alone in this criticism, with Lapid often portrayed as little more than a camera-friendly opportunist. For years the Likud and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed him as a “lightweight” neither ready nor prepared to get into the ring and go head-to-head with other world leaders.

But to Lapid’s good fortune, the image didn’t stick; Schlein was unable to do to Lapid what Hartzufim did to Meridor.

Moreover, Lapid’s willingness in 2019 to take a back seat to Benny Gantz and let Gantz lead the Blue and White Party aimed at blocking Netanyahu’s path to victory, and again to yield to Bennett after the 2021 elections and let the Yamina Party head with only seven seats take first shot at the rotating premiership, altered the perception of him as little more than an opportunist who benefited from good lineage (his father was the late justice minister Tommy Lapid) and a high public profile because of his previous career in television.

And now this: as a result of Monday’s surprise announcement that Bennett will hand the reins of power to Lapid to serve as transitional prime minister until a new government is formed, Lapid will be competing in the upcoming elections for the office of prime minister from the Prime Minister’s Office, something that, according to pollster and political strategist Mitchell Barak, gives him a definite edge.

If, before the 2019 elections, Netanyahu very much wanted to go head-to-head against Lapid, whom he disparaged as a weak leftist without diplomatic or security experience, running against Lapid now, when he is sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office and after a year during which he strutted on the world’s stage as foreign minister, is a different ball game altogether.

“The problem sometimes with people running for prime minister is that you can’t necessarily imagine them being prime minister.”

Mitchell Barak

“The problem sometimes with people running for prime minister is that you can’t necessarily imagine them being prime minister,” Barak said, putting his finger on what was heretofore one of Lapid’s biggest political liabilities.

“So when you have him as acting prime minister, and he is going to the Prime Minister’s Office, and he is sitting at the cabinet meeting in that middle seat, and he’s meeting dignitaries, and living in the Prime Minister’s Residence, that will give him a very big sense of stature. People then won’t have to imagine him as possibly being the prime minister, because he will already have been the prime minister.”

Barak, the CEO of Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications, noted that Lapid has made clear he wants to move into the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street immediately, unlike Bennett, who never moved in.

“Even if he sleeps on a mattress on the floor,” Barak said, Lapid should move there because of the symbolism involved. “For the last 12 years, Balfour has been associated with Netanyahu’s prime ministership. This would certainly be a smart move.”

Another benefit to accrue to Lapid from being acting prime minister – along with the status and stature that this will convey by the photo op with US President Joe Biden, and likely trips to the US, Europe and the Gulf states to enhance his image as a statesman in Netanyahu’s league – is that he will be, well, the acting prime minister, meaning that if there is a crisis, he will be there to deal with it.

“Not only will he be the guy managing the crisis,” Barak said, “but if there is a crisis, people will be less likely to want to change course in the middle.

“We could have some issue with Iran, with Lebanon, with the Russians in Syria, and Lapid will be there managing it,” Barak continued. “And once people see him managing it, they will say, ‘The sky’s not falling with Lapid,’ something that will work to his advantage.”

Barak said it is unclear whether Netanyahu is pleased to have Lapid now in the Prime Minister’s Office and be seen as the candidate he is running against.

“There used to be a scare factor involved with Lapid,” Barak said. “Netanyahu would say, ‘If I’m not elected, you’re going to get Lapid.’ But now that is going to be more difficult, because people will say, ‘Okay, so what? We already have Lapid, and things seem fine.’”

That, of course, is assuming that things do go fine under Lapid’s baton.

Roni Rimon, a strategic and political consultant and partner in the Rimon Cohen & Co public relations firm, said that during the three to four months that Lapid will likely have as acting prime minister until new elections, “he doesn’t need to be brilliant, just not make any major mistakes.”

Rimon said that over the last year Lapid has earned a great deal of credit among the public as the “responsible adult” in the coalition who was trying to fix everything between the often quarreling MKs and ministers.

He also benefited in the public’s eyes, Rimon added, by being in the Foreign Ministry, where the job is primarily declaratory, and not in a ministry such as Finance, Transportation or Construction and Housing, where he could be held responsible for the economic situation, endless traffic jams or high housing prices.

According to Rimon, Netanyahu is mistaken in underestimating Lapid, whose party is currently polling at an average of 21 seats, four more than it has in the present Knesset and two more than its previous high of 19 seats in its maiden campaign in 2013.

In the past, Rimon said, Netanyahu could present himself as wiser and more experienced than Lapid, and “present Lapid as a zero. But Lapid is no longer seen in that way; he now has both Knesset and government experience.”

Netanyahu, Rimon said, will err if he falls back on his default position of portraying Lapid as a leftist backed by “supporters of terrorism.”

By doing that, according to Rimon, Netanyahu will be pushing away those voters – those decisive voters – straddling the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu fence.

This type of rhetoric will perhaps fire up those who already plan to vote for Netanyahu in the first place, but it could turn off voters in the right-wing New Hope and Yamina parties who voted for those parties last time out of a distaste for Netanyahu, but who might be willing to give him another look this time.

Rimon likened the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps to two separate aquariums, and said the trick is to move voters from one aquarium to the next. What happens inside each aquarium is less important.

For instance, following the last elections, there were 52 seats in the pro-Netanyahu tank. Polls taken on Tuesday, after Bennett and Lapid announced they support new elections, found that there has been significant movement from one tank to the next, with the pro-Netanyahu tank – made up of the Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionist parties – gaining some seven to eight seats and polling at 59-60 seats.

While the movement of seven or eight seats from one aquarium to the next is significant, Rimon noted that these voters were not coming from the Center-Left or Center, but from the right-wing parties in the anti-Netanyahu block – from Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu.

The most seats the Likud garnered in the previous four elections was 36 in March 2020. A year later, in March 2021, it fell to 30. The current polls are again giving it 36 seats, with the increase coming from voters who left the Likud to go to Yamina and New Hope, but who are now “coming back home.”

To increase the size of his tank, Rimon said, Netanyahu needs to win back more of those voters, and he doesn’t think the way to do that is through a divisive, angry campaign.

And what’s true of the pro-Netanyahu bloc is also true of the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Lapid is not going to be drawing voters from the Likud, UTJ, Shas or the Religious Zionist Party, so if he is to draw new voters, they will come from within his own aquarium – from Labor, Blue and White and Meretz. The polls are showing that he is already doing this, as Yesh Atid’s numbers are rising, while those of Meretz and, in some polls, Labor are slipping.

Here, according to Rimon, is where being acting prime minister can definitely benefit him. “He wants to be king of his camp, he wants to lead that camp and close the gap between him and the Likud, getting 30 seats at the expense of the other parties in his camp.”

And his ability to do that, Rimon said, will be given a major boost by being the acting prime minister, “where he will be the one running the country. He will be the one who meets Biden; he will be the one traveling the world, meeting world leaders, the one speaking everywhere, and the one whom the mainstream media will wrap in affection. That will definitely benefit him at the expense of the others in his camp – Gantz, Labor and Meretz.”•