Yair Lapid’s promising start

So far, he’s handled his new role as kingmaker surprisingly well. But the real challenges lie ahead.

Yair Lapid addressing supporters in post election speech 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
Yair Lapid addressing supporters in post election speech 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
I’ve always been deeply suspicious of the fly-by-night parties that spring up periodically, last for one or two Knessets and then disappear. Few have done anything constructive, and some have even done harm.
I’m especially suspicious when these parties are vanity vehicles for some well-known figure who wants to parachute into politics at the top without first learning the ropes. Politics is a profession like any other, with skills that must be mastered; ignorance of these skills is the main reason why most such parachutists have proven dismal failures. So I wasn’t thrilled when last week’s election elevated the head of our latest vanity vehicle to one of the most influential figures in Israeli politics.
But so far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. If Yair Lapid can manage to continue as he’s begun, he could end up doing the country real good.
The first pleasant surprise was how quickly he quashed the nonsensical idea of a “blocking majority” to keep Binyamin Netanyahu from remaining prime minister. He thereby proved that his stunning electoral success hasn’t intoxicated him to the point of losing touch with reality – unlike, say, Tzipi Livni in 2009, who was still proclaiming herself the rightful premier even as Netanyahu was being sworn in.
Lapid obviously knew the initial 60-60 split (out of 120 Knesset seats) between what the media inaccurately terms the “right” and “center-left” blocs might disappear once the soldiers’ votes were counted (as indeed happened; the final result gave the “right” a 61-59 advantage). But had that been his main concern, he could simply have postponed any announcement until the final count was announced last Thursday. Instead, he called a press conference Wednesday night – when a 60-60 split still seemed possible – and definitively scotched the idea, declaring, “The results of the elections are clear. We have to work with those results.”
In other words, Lapid remembered what Livni forgot in 2009: It doesn’t matter how many votes any individual party received; what matters is whether it can form a 61-seat coalition. And given the party breakdown, the only person who could form a functional coalition was Netanyahu.
Theoretically, a leftist coalition wasn’t impossible: Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Livni’s Hatnuah, Kadima and the two haredi parties could form a stable 66-seat government. But because of its dependence on the haredim, such a government would be incapable of fulfilling Lapid’s main promises to voters: equalizing the burden of military service and enacting economic reforms to benefit the middle class. It would be capable only of pursuing a futile peace process with the Palestinians – something Lapid favors, but not at the expense of other goals – and increasing government handouts.
In contrast, Netanyahu could form a stable 64-seat coalition with Lapid, Kadima and Bayit Yehudi that would be able to enact the kind of reforms Lapid promised: All four parties favor equalizing the service burden, and all support market-oriented economic reforms. Indeed, Netanyahu and Lapid have reportedly already agreed on such a core coalition, though they remain divided over which other parties to include.
In short, Lapid decided that keeping his promises to his voters was more important than pandering to his own ego and the left’s loathing for Netanyahu. And if he sticks to that order of priorities, he just might succeed in effecting real reform.
Equally important, however, was the way he explained his decision: “We won’t build an obstructionist bloc with [Balad MK] Haneen Zoabi,” he asserted, referring to the fact that a “blocking majority” aimed at keeping Netanyahu from power would require cooperating with the three Arab parties.
That was blunt shorthand for a very important statement of principles. Unpacked, it would go something like this:
“Do you really think Netanyahu – a man who, for all my disagreements with him, has spent years serving Israel to the best of his ability – is a greater enemy than Zoabi, an unrepentant Hamas shill? That I have less common ground with him than with the woman who joined a flotilla to break her own country’s legal blockade of Hamas-run Gaza? Or with the other Arab MKs, who oppose the very idea of a Jewish state? Who at best refuse to condemn, and sometimes actively condone, Palestinian terror, and denounce Israeli leaders as ‘murderers’ and ‘fascists’ whenever they order military action in the country’s defense? Have you gone mad?”
In short, Lapid proclaimed himself the champion of a sane center-left – one that understands its political opponents on the right are nevertheless partners in building the Jewish state, not enemies to be destroyed at any cost, whereas Arab MKs who openly side with Israel’s real enemies can’t be partners, however much we wish they were.
To translate this promising beginning into real achievement, however, Lapid will have to surmount two challenges in the coming months. First, of course, he must actually enact the promised reforms. Second, he must keep his head when the “peace process” hits the inevitable wall, rather than adopting the usual leftist dodge of hysterically blaming Netanyahu for Palestinian intransigence.
This won’t be easy, because Lapid’s party has deemed Israeli-Palestinian talks one of its three priorities, a sine qua non for joining the government. But the Palestinians still refuse to talk unless Israel agrees upfront to a border based on the 1967 lines and freezes all Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These conditions are clearly unacceptable – not only to Netanyahu, but also to Lapid, if he meant what he said on the campaign trail: He unveiled his foreign policy platform in Ariel to stress his commitment to the settlement blocs, and explicitly nixed the idea of redividing Jerusalem. 
Thus eventually, he will have to either admit that Palestinian intransigence has made negotiations impossible and focus on domestic reform, or abandon all his campaign pledges on diplomatic issues, blame Netanyahu for not doing the same and quit the government, thereby also torpedoing any hope of domestic reform.
If he chooses the latter, he will go down in history as just one more fly-by-night party that accomplished nothing. But the loss won’t be his alone: All Israel will be the poorer for it. The writer is a journalist and commentator.