Israel Elections: Is this Lapid's hour to down Netanyahu?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: This might be the Yesh Atid leader's hour to take the reins and form a coalition. But can he do it?

YESH ATID leader Yair Lapid speaks during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
YESH ATID leader Yair Lapid speaks during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
The political gods, to a certain extent, seem to be smiling on Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid.
First, smaller parties in the Center-Left bloc that potentially could have siphoned voters away from Yesh Atid have fallen by the wayside – such as the parties of Moshe Ya’alon, Ofer Shelah and Danny Yatom – or have failed to take off, such as Ron Huldai’s party.
Second, resentment and frustration with the haredim over how certain segments of that community have brazenly flouted the coronavirus regulations are running high, and there are few on the political map more identified with the battle against the haredi political establishment than Lapid.
Which all raises the question whether the stars are aligned just right for Lapid, and whether the journalist-turned-politician with a burning ambition to become this country’s prime minister now has his best shot ever at actually taking over the country’s helm.
Not because Yesh Atid can beat the Likud – the polls are showing the Likud far ahead of Yesh Atid by a margin of an average of 30.5 seats to 17.5. Rather, because he could possibly cobble together a coalition that would include Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, as well as Meretz and Labor, to form a coalition with an “anything but Bibi’’ sentiment being the glue holding it together, despite the wildly different ideologies of the component parties.
Possible? Yes. A long shot? Most certainly. But it still might be Lapid’s best chance ever.
Lapid spent some 25 years in journalism – first as an editor of Yediot Aharonot’s Tel Aviv supplement and later as the host of Channel 2’s flagship Friday night news show, Ulpan Shishi – before following the trajectory of his father, Tommy Lapid, and leaving media for politics. He formed Yesh Atid in 2012, and in its first Knesset run in 2013 garnered a surprising 19 seats. He joined Netanyahu’s government – famously forming an alliance with Bennett aimed at keeping the haredi parties out of the coalition – and received the Finance Ministry portfolio. 
The party faltered in the next elections in 2015, winning only 11 seats, and prior to the April 2019 election joined forces with Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon to form Blue and White. He took his 13-seat faction out of that party last year when Gantz decided to join the government. 
“We are the only party with an upward trend at the moment. We’re going up all the time,” said a senior source in the Yesh Atid campaign. “And we think we have the most potential for growth.”
The official acknowledged that one source of this growth is voters who scouted out the smaller parties on the Center-Left – parties that have withdrawn from the race and others that might not cross the 3.25% electoral threshold – and are now coming to Lapid.
“None of those are big numbers, but each one [failed party] is another seat or half a seat or two seats, and it all adds up. That’s one part of it,” he said
Another source of growing support, he argued, has to do with the haredim being thrust atop the national agenda. On this issue, he said, people see Lapid as the clearest alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Netanyahu is the preferred candidate for the haredim because he always ends up giving them what they want, he will always give in to their demands. The public knows that’s not the case with Lapid.”
And another element helping the party, the source maintained, is its campaign.
“People feel like there’s instability, indecision and chaos in the country because of the government, and so our campaign message is it’s time for a sane government. Sanity is a message that people can relate to; they want calm and sanity and good management. And they get that from us, a lot less drama.”
INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL strategic adviser Moshe Klughaft, a former adviser to Netanyahu, agrees that a campaign based on providing stability and order is what the public is currently hungering for, and something Lapid has been able to radiate.
“I think that what Lapid has gained this time is that the Israeli public has matured, and there is an appreciation and respect for good internal political dynamics,” he said. “He projects stability and unity, and something calm – he did not argue with those who left his party, he didn’t fight with Shelah or Ya’alon. I think people connect to that because they are looking for quiet, calm, stability – they don’t want chaos.
“I see a lot of surveys, and among the undecided voters, the most important thing is political stability – not corona, but political stability. And he projects that, and his party projects that. So people say, if his party is stable, he can be stable in the future.”
While the surveys show that Lapid’s stability plays well with the voters, they also show that when it comes to questions as to which candidate can best deal with the country’s security and diplomatic challenges, Lapid does not do well.
“He is seen as very suited on issues dealing with democracy – Netanyahu, protecting the judicial system, not sitting with Netanyahu in a government, the right to protest. But if the campaign will go to diplomatic issues, he will have a problem,” Klughaft said.
“His polling numbers on these issues are low,” he added. “If you ask people, ‘Who will best look after your personal security?’ Lapid’s numbers are simply not that high. If you ask who can stand up to Iran, Lapid is not strong.
“Lapid needs to campaign about domestic and civil issues,” he said. “But if the narrative is about defense policy, diplomacy and Iran – and Netanyahu will take it there, he will flood [the campaign] on the Iranian issue and go to sign agreements in the United Arab Emirate and maybe Morocco – this will be a problem for Lapid; that is his glass ceiling.”
Klughaft said that the surveys also show that another important issue for undecided voters, in addition to stability, is unity.
In light of this, he said, Lapid has been careful not to be overly strident toward the haredim, as has Liberman, who is also vying for the “anti-haredi” vote.
“He is trying to get beyond the image of being against the haredim. Notice, right now he is not coming out against the haredim, not like Liberman who says, ‘end haredi extortion.’ For Lapid it is, ‘let us have a sane government.’ He doesn’t come out against the haredim.”
This, according to the political strategist, is wise politics.
“People want reconciliation, not war,” he said. “People are mad at the haredim, but pay attention to the campaigns – all of them, except for Liberman’s, are not negative. Likud is running a positive campaign. Bennett is running a campaign that is focused on issues. Compare this with the last [Likud] campaign that Gantz was not sane, not ready. Now the campaigns are much calmer, because that is what people want.”
According to Klughaft, Lapid already has the anti-haredi card built in; he doesn’t need to shout it or shove it in people’s faces.
Noting that Blue and White’s most successful showing in the three previous elections was in September 2019 when its campaign motto was “a secular unity government” and it outpolled the Likud 33 seats to 32, Klughaft said Lapid should run hard on religion-state issues.
This issue resonates, he said, but Lapid should do it without “getting overexcited. Liberman is the most militant on this; Lapid doesn’t have to be.”
Klughaft does not advise Lapid to highlight Netanyahu’s trial or the corruption charges, saying this will not bring the Yesh Atid chairman any benefit. Those who support Netanyahu support him, and those against him are against him, and to harp on this issue “will not change anything,” he argued.
RONI RIMON, another political strategist, disagrees, however. He said that Lapid will need to pound away at Netanyahu, if only to prove his bona fides as the leader of the disparate “anything but Bibi” camp.
“It’s like two people running barefoot in the jungle,” he said. “When they hear a lion roar, one guy stops, goes into his backpack and takes out running shoes. His friend asks, ‘Do you think you can run faster than the lion?’ ‘No,’ he replies, ‘but I can run faster than you.’”
Which is to say, Rimon explained, that while Lapid cannot take votes from the Likud by attacking Netanyahu, he can take votes from Sa’ar and Bennett by doing so, “because people who don’t want Netanyahu will gravitate to the person who they think can best fulfill that hope.”
Ironically, Rimon said, Lapid and Netanyahu have one campaign strategy in common: they both have an interest in building Lapid up.
Lapid, obviously, needs to build himself up so that Yesh Atid emerges as the largest party in the anti-Netanyahu camp, and Lapid becomes the natural candidate for prime minister, if that camp coalesces into a coalition after the election.
And Netanyahu wants to build Lapid up because his most comfortable campaign playing field is to be able to say – once again – that the choice is a clear one between him and the Left.
“Netanyahu can’t say that Bennett or Sa’ar are Left, but he can say that about Lapid, in the hope that this will bring back voters who drifted from him.”
In the March 2020 election the Likud won 36 seats, the highest for the party since 2003. Netanyahu is currently polling at 30, which means six seats have left over the last year, most of them – according to Rimon – landing with Bennett or Sa’ar.
“He needs to bring those people home, and these are obviously people with right-wing sentiments,” Rimon said, adding that the time-tested way to do this is for Netanyahu to say again that he is running against the Left.
Dov Lipman, a former Yesh Atid MK who knows the party and its leader well, said that the perception that Netanyahu has long tried to promulgate that Lapid is left-wing – a perception Lipman said is incorrect – can hurt Lapid in a different way: it may prevent Sa’ar and Bennett from being willing to sit in a cabinet with Lapid as the prime minister.
Lipman agreed that the stars are aligning for Lapid to the extent that the haredi issue is once again at the top of the national agenda, and that the small left-wing parties failed to take off. “Yes, this will give him stronger numbers than one would have thought, but it will not put him into a position of being the candidate for prime minister or being able to put together a government.”
Why not?
“Because I don’t see Sa’ar or Bennett agreeing to sit in a government with Lapid as prime minister,” he said. “As much as everyone is saying that they will put ideology aside to remove Netanyahu, I just don’t see them willing to do so to crown Lapid. Knowing the players, having been within the system, I see them preferring to hedge their bets on a fifth election rather than making Lapid the prime minister.”
The reason, Lipman said, is because “everyone is positioning themselves to be the post-Netanyahu leader of the Right. And as much as everyone is thinking of the here and now, there is a lot of jostling going on over the future.”
According to Lipman, neither Bennett nor Sa’ar would be willing to risk losing his potential title as the rightful heir to the right-wing leadership by crowning someone who is perceived as Left, something that would leave a “stain” and “taint” them on the Right.
If it’s a choice between having Lapid as prime minister and being able to remove Netanyahu from office, or going to fifth elections, Lipman believes Bennett and Sa’ar would both actually choose yet another round of elections. The reason: “because they both have aspirations beyond what happens in this one race.”