Lapid has a chance to be what Israel needs in his turn as PM - opinion

Four months is not a lot of time, and it will be hard to show tangible results, but maybe that's not what is needed.

 WILL HE be smiling after the election? Yair Lapid this week at the Knesset.  (photo credit: AMIR LEVY)
WILL HE be smiling after the election? Yair Lapid this week at the Knesset.
(photo credit: AMIR LEVY)

A couple of years ago, ahead of the second of the last four elections, I asked Yair Lapid what it was about him that got people so worked up.

There are Israelis, I said, who agree with your middle-of-the-road positions, and who will stick with you from one election to the next. On the other hand, there are those – particularly on the Right – who despise you and speak of you in some of the worst of terms. Rarely, I told him, do I find someone who is indifferent.

Lapid agreed. Many senior politicians, he said, like Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, Menachem Begin and even his own father, Tommy Lapid, drew strong emotional reactions from the public. On one side were people who loved them, and on the other side were people with strong feelings of antagonism.

“I have the same effect on people.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid

That was in 2019, back when Lapid was still a part of the Blue and White Party with Benny Gantz (remember those days?), and doing everything he could to prevent Netanyahu from being able to form a government. Then came 2021, when he did something never before seen in Israel: receive the presidential mandate to form a coalition and then hand that job to someone else.

 Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid during a discussion and a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, at the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, on June 22, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid during a discussion and a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, at the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, on June 22, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

It was a move that bewildered Israelis, who had only known prime ministers doing everything they could – short of a January 6-style limousine steering-wheel grab – to hold onto power. Netanyahu would never have done what Lapid did. Nobody would have. Generosity in Israeli politics was simply not done.

But Lapid showed that wasn’t the case, exemplified by his election campaign during which he refused to declare that he was even running for prime minister. Letting Bennett form a government helped reinforce the message that he wasn’t looking for a job. He was seeking to reset the country. And if that required allowing for a government in which he would not be prime minister, then so be it. That was the price he was willing to pay.

Had Lapid insisted on being prime minister – something legitimate, something valid, something fair, considering the previous election results and that Yesh Atid was the largest party after Likud – there would never have been a government to replace Netanyahu. Israel would have rolled to another election.

The media had trouble coming to terms with this move. For the first six months or so of this government, every interview or news conference with Lapid included a question on whether he believed Bennett would abide by the rotation agreement. That was the most important issue for the country.

The reason was simple: Israelis had been engineered to expect lies and manipulation in politics, not legislators like Lapid and Bennett who kept to their coalition agreement and remained loyal to their alliance. That was unheard of.

Now that he is prime minister, will something change with Yair Lapid? Will he be able to leave a distinguishing mark before November 1, Election Day? Will he be able to portray a different type of leader, one that Israelis have yet to see?

Four months is not a lot of time, and it will be hard to show tangible results. Yet that might not be what is needed.

One accomplishment is already lined up: the visit of US President Joe Biden. While the president will also meet Netanyahu during his 48 hours in Israel – to avoid being seen as interfering in Israeli politics – there is little doubt who Biden would like to see be prime minister after the upcoming election. Administration officials have made their preferences quite clear over the last year.

A successful visit by the president hosted by Lapid will score the Yesh Atid leader points, as will the trip to Paris he’s planning this coming week to meet President Emmanuel Macron.

That said, it is not foreign affairs where Lapid is perceived as lacking. Yes, there is criticism by Likud supporters that Lapid does not understand matters of national security, does not get the economy, and that he is left-wing and a populist. But those claims are somewhat ridiculous.

Lapid was finance minister between 2013 and 2015, and while some of his decisions might have been controversial, it is not serious to say he does not know anything about the economy.

The same applies to national security. Lapid has sat for years in security cabinet meetings, and has become – especially over the last year as foreign minister – intimately familiar with the grave threats Israel faces, and the different means it employs to protect itself. Bennett was not that much different when he took up the premiership last June.

Why is Lapid hard to understand?

What makes Lapid difficult for some people to understand is his middle-of-the-road approach to policy. For hardcore ideologues, it is hard to understand since they are used to viewing issues in black and white terms, with little, if any, nuance. The idea that someone can be right-wing on one issue and then hold seemingly left-wing views on another issue is a crime for these people. Instead of appreciating the nuance, they decry what appears on the surface to be inconsistent.

Anyhow, none of that matters to the die-hard Likud supporters who will vote for Netanyahu no matter what. For many, he could be convicted of bribery and sent to jail – and they would still cast a vote for him if allowed. Lapid knows they won’t switch their votes to Yesh Atid, and won’t waste time trying to get them to.

What he can do is focus on two different challenges. The first will be working to galvanize the “silent center,” what he and Bennett call the large swath of this country that mostly remains quiet when it comes to politics, and who might not vote in the upcoming election.

If those voters come out in high numbers, it might be enough to prevent Netanyahu’s bloc from winning enough seats to form a coalition. That is a realistic goal.

AS HE IS now prime minister, Lapid will no longer say that he is not running for the role. While that was once seen as a liability, now it will be an advantage since he will be able to clearly articulate what Israelis face: either a government like the last one that worked for the people and was the most representative in the country’s history, or one that will be led by a person with a singular objective: to evade justice.

The second challenge ties directly into the one before, which will be for Lapid to illustrate – as prime minister – the dilemma Israelis will face when standing in front of the blue ballot box come November. To do that, he must show how ministers can work harmoniously together.

For the next four months, Lapid will follow the path of Bennett in managing a professional and effective cabinet, with one clear exception: his party. Yesh Atid is a well-oiled machine. Yamina, Bennett’s party, collapsed from within and brought about the downfall of his government. That will not happen to Lapid.

And that might be one of his greatest achievements since entering politics 10 years ago. Lapid created a party that has lasting power, unlike some of the other centrist parties before him (Kadima, Third Way, and others). He built a party, infrastructure and team that has prepared for years for the moment that Lapid would be at the top. That moment has now arrived, and with it, their greatest test.

While current polls show Lapid without enough seats to form a government, Netanyahu also falls short, and that might just be enough. If Lapid can prevent Netanyahu from being able to form a government, then he will remain prime minister, just as Netanyahu did through four elections that spanned two-and-a-half years.

Is this ideal for Israel? Of course not. But considering the alternative – a government that will seek to help one person evade justice, and then try to take down Israel’s democratic institutions – it might not be so bad.