Lapid's Iran approach is softer than Netanyahu's, and it might work - opinion

Netanyahu will use any nuclear deal to hammer away at Lapid and try to say that if he had been in charge, he would have stopped it from passing.


Let us start from the end.

If there is a new nuclear deal with Iran, we can be certain of one thing – it will become the centerpiece of Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign. He will use it to claim that the Americans, the Europeans and the Iranians all conspired to pass a bad deal for one reason and one reason only – because Yair Lapid is currently the prime minister of the State of Israel.

The truth will not make a difference. Netanyahu will use the deal to hammer away at Lapid and try to claim that if he had been prime minister, he would have stopped it from passing. Some people have already started pushing this narrative. One prominent Israeli military analyst wrote this week that in his view, the situation is not being managed. Lapid, he argued, needed to get on a plane, fly to Washington, meet with the president and make Israel’s case. Nothing else, he said, would work.

It’s quite amazing. Netanyahu has been out of office for almost a year-and-a-half, but his mark on the way things are supposed to be done remains in place. A prime minister needs to be aggressive, needs to fly to the US and meet the president. If only that were to happen, all of Israel’s problems would be solved.

The problem is that I am old enough to remember a time when a prime minister did exactly that. It was March 2015 and the prime minister at the time – Netanyahu - got on a plane, flew to Washington, DC, and even gave a speech before a joint session of Congress. Did any of that stop the deal? Of course not. What it did do was cause damage to the Israel-US relationship that is still being felt today.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid meets with Mossad chief David Barnea on August 25. (credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE) Prime Minister Yair Lapid meets with Mossad chief David Barnea on August 25. (credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)

Something worth thinking about, no?

Despite the past, there is no doubt that a new deal will present a challenge for Lapid even if he will have the events of 2015 to use to hit back.

As seen over four election campaigns, there is almost nothing off limits in the Likud’s quest for power – even matters like Iran that strike at the core of Israel’s national security interests.

The way this situation is being portrayed in some circles, though, illustrates something else – how Israelis have been conditioned to believe that there is only one way to do things.

It is hard, for example, for people like the aforementioned military analyst to consider another course of action, one that is not as loud and not as in-your-face as the way Netanyahu did things.  This approach can be described as the “Lapid Style.”

Iran is today one of the issues that take up most of Lapid’s time and attention. This past week alone, he spoke with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and others. He dispatched his national security adviser, Eyal Hulata, to Washington; authorized a trip to Washington for Defense Minister Benny Gantz; and on Wednesday, briefed the international media. In the meantime, Ambassador Mike Herzog has spent a lot of time in recent weeks roaming the halls of Hart, Dirksen and Russel – the three senate office buildings – speaking to members on both sides of the aisle and explaining Israel’s reservations against the deal.

Lapid's different style

THERE IS no hiding the fact that Lapid’s style is different. He might speak daily with the Americans to place pressure where he can, but he does so in a way that gets the point across without blowing up the relationship, like what happened in 2015. 

On Wednesday, for example, Lapid spoke out against the deal in one of his first public appearances on the issue, but he kept things civil. It wasn’t about blowing up, but rather working hard to get his point across – that the deal that seems to be coming down the pipeline is not the one that President Joe Biden promised to achieve. Instead, Lapid said, it was far worse.

While the chances of stopping a deal are slim, the government has reason to believe that it can impact the process. A few months ago, for example, when the administration was leaning toward lifting the terror designation from the IRGC, Naftali Bennett and Lapid succeeded in changing the White House’s mind. Then too, it was not easy, but the objective was achieved without leading to a blow-up.

This style – of keeping the situation below the threshold of an outright conflict with the US – fits into the strategy that Lapid brought with him in June to the Aquarium, as the suite of offices where the prime minister and his team sit in the Prime Minister’s Office is called.

The overarching strategy was to stay quiet, focus on work, and provide stability, security, and basically a sense of calm after such a long period of political havoc and coalition craziness.

By staying quiet, Lapid tried to prove two ideas. The first is that a leader doesn’t always have to be in people’s faces, scaring them, warning them of imminent danger or showing them how great he or she is. In addition, it was meant to get people accustomed to the idea of having Lapid as their prime minister, something forces on the Right had warned for years would be a disaster.

What Lapid wanted to show was that having him in the chair did not automatically mean that everything was bad. On the contrary: the country seems today to be managed – ministers talk about serious cabinet issues without the political bickering characteristic of the past, relations with Turkey have been restored, and even the recent operation in Gaza seems to have been the most successful in recent memory.

And while Likud will have you believe that it has nothing to do with Lapid, it seems that it actually did. The prime minister gave a lot of thought in the run-up to the Gaza operation, how he wanted to see it end, and ensured that the process was smooth and included all of the relevant and necessary players. Somehow that was possible without the nightly press conferences that we used to have from the past prime minister, full of pathos eliciting fear.

So far, the strategy has paid off. According to recent polls, Lapid has closed the gap between Yesh Atid and Likud to only a seven-to-eight seat lead. Considering that just a few months ago Lapid seemed to have a ceiling of 20 seats, that means something is clearly working.

The challenge remains

WHAT REMAINS is the political challenge – how will Lapid form a coalition? Even if Netanyahu fails to reach the 61 seats he has fought to get for three years, there is skepticism that Lapid has a path to form an alternative government.

From Lapid’s perspective, while another election is bad for the country, it is not necessarily bad for him politically. If no one can form a government, then the country will go to another election and in the meantime, he will remain prime minister, giving him more time to gain credibility and voters.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility that Lapid will, in fact, succeed in forming a government. For now, Lapid is working hard to get Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli to agree to a merger with Meretz. The problem is that Michaeli has so far refused to hear about the idea, even if it will mean that Meretz fails to cross the threshold, thereby boosting Netanyahu’s chances of success.

In addition, some people claim that there is a sea change among the ultra-Orthodox parties – both United Torah Judaism and Shas – and that, if Netanyahu fails to form a government, they will not go automatically to additional time in the opposition.

Lapid is banking on that. He hopes that if he can deny Netanyahu getting to 61, Shas and UTJ will recalculate their allegiance to Likud and be willing to enter into a Lapid-led government.

Is this realistic? Hard to tell. On the one hand, the haredim have openly hinted at their willingness to review alternatives after the election. On the other hand, there is no way they are going to say that publicly out of fear of losing votes to Itamar Ben-Gvir’s far-right party. The resignation of UTJ leader Ya’acov Litzman is seen as helping the chances since he was one of the main obstacles to any reconciliation with Lapid.

The following story might also be telling: A couple of months ago, during one of the more heated debates in the Knesset, the deputy religious services minister, Matan Kahana – formerly of Yamina and now part of Gantz’s National Unity Party – took to the podium to address the plenum. Several MKs from Shas and UTJ began heckling Kahana, and at one point called him “Antiochus,” the name of the Greek Hellenistic king who conquered Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple.

Lapid was in the plenum, heard the name, walked over to the group of MKs and asked what had happened.

“Antiochus used to be my name,” he said, smiling to the the ultra-Orthodox MKs who until recently used to yell names like that at him. 

They laughed in return which does not yet mean that they are willing to enter into a coalition with him, but it does create options and that is something that Netanyahu fears.

In the end though, there is really only one answer to the question of how Lapid can potentially form a coalition after the next election, and that is by looking at where he is right now and considering the near-impossible path that got him there and how many people thought it would never happen.

Can he do that again? We will find out soon enough.