Israel Elections: Why did Yair Lapid's campaign fail? - opinion

Lapid asked them politely to unite, then slinked away when they refused. Can anyone imagine Netanyahu not bashing together whatever heads needed bashing to get past this reckless idiocy?

 Prime Minister and leader of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid speaks to supporters in Tel Aviv late Tuesday night, after preliminary election results were announced. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Prime Minister and leader of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid speaks to supporters in Tel Aviv late Tuesday night, after preliminary election results were announced.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Much will be said about the failures that have saddled Israel with at least several years of a calamitous right-wing government that will exacerbate the Jewish-Arab conflict, widen the chasm between religious and secular, hobble relations with the United States and rubbish the country’s reputation around the world.

Most of it will focus on the astounding tactical errors committed by the center-left bloc, primarily the inability of the leftist and Arab parties to unite, which combined to throw away almost 300,000 votes that would have made the difference between this disaster and something else.

But I want to focus on a far more strategic problem that is shared by many liberal political bodies around the world and is corrosive to democratic discourse: the center-left was essentially afraid to speak its name.

Not one of the timid parties in Yair Lapid’s bloc even tried to convincingly articulate a vision for the country to the point of almost ignoring the revolting fact that the opposition leader and former prime minister was running while on trial for bribery because of a loophole in the law.

This results from a nefarious psychosis that has settled into Israeli political thinking that holds that no one can be convinced of anything anymore. You will hear this in the words of those who will excuse the passive campaign by blaming Israel’s demographics, suggesting that there is nothing to be done because the religious have so many children.

 Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid smiles as he casts his vote at a polling station in Israel's coastal city of Tel Aviv in the country's fifth election in four years on November 1, 2022. (credit: Photo by JACK GUEZ/Pool via REUTERS) Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid smiles as he casts his vote at a polling station in Israel's coastal city of Tel Aviv in the country's fifth election in four years on November 1, 2022. (credit: Photo by JACK GUEZ/Pool via REUTERS)

But elections are not a census between tribes. They are supposed to be the ultimate manifestation of a philosophical discourse that is deployed through political strategy.

Lapid’s highfalutin data people drove most of this decision with their tireless investigation of the country’s mulish public. But data cannot measure intangibles like charisma, force of personality, karma and energy. Data is two-dimensional in a three-dimensional world.

I know people can be persuaded from personal experience in this country and many others. Not many, but some and enough to sway elections.

The impact of this manifests in the simple fact that the anti-Netanyahu bloc received 65 seats in 2019 (which were wasted due to Benny Gantz’s lack of focus and determination) and 61 last year (which were bolstered with the recruitment of Naftali Bennett and his motley Yamina crew). Now, Netanyahu has a majority so something clearly shifted somewhere.

Where did Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid's campaign go wrong?

Lapid badly miscalculated in running a Rose Garden campaign focused on attaching the title Prime Minister to his name at every opportunity, listing his fine but still-modest achievements, and declaring that he and his team have come to work. This was woefully insufficient and Israelis will soon discover the other guys have also come to work, and how!

Their first work order will be the neutralization of the Supreme Court, the only body providing any protection to the Palestinians, with an override clause enabling parliament to veto rulings. A third intifada should surprise no one except anyone reliant for their information on the Lapid campaign.

This is all a terrible shame because a huge pile of money was left on the table. For one thing, Israelis do not want to live in a non-democratic state where Jews rule over millions of disenfranchised Arabs. They rightly fear a hasty pullout from the West Bank because of the Gaza precedent of Hamas taking over but Lapid could have articulated a vision of working toward separation at least by ending all Jewish settlement beyond the security fence line.

SECONDLY, ISRAELIS definitely don’t want to live in a failed and impoverished economy. Lapid would have given many people a reason to vote for him had he stated clearly that he would work with the Haredim toward enacting a core curriculum of science, math and English in their schools. He could have noted the abominable outrage that Netanyahu scuttled an agreement with the Belz Hasidim to do just this a few weeks ago. Was he really that scared of the Haredim labeling the imposition of math as antisemitic?

Lapid could have also filled the country with ads quoting Jewish Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich’s statements indicating his commitment to ultimately placing Jewish religious law ahead of state law. Under this crowd, in a decade or two, Israelis will eventually face bans on driving on the Sabbath, wearing immodest clothing and eating non-kosher food in public. What was the thinking in letting this campaign gold sit unbidden?

Next, Lapid allowed the right-wing narrative that the charges against Netanyahu were about a few cigars to go essentially unchallenged. All they needed to do was quote from the indictment in every social feed and on huge billboards in every town. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in demanded gifts from billionaires in need of favors that allegedly included jewelry and clothing in Case 1000, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in regulatory favors in Case 4000. The hair stands on end or would if anyone fought for this truth to be told.

Then there were the tactical failures, where most of the attention will sit. Lapid never seemed to realize that he simply must embrace Israel’s Arab citizens, who are in a very delicate position. That many feel and are Palestinians who feel estranged from the state is clear but many others, probably most, are desperate to integrate and be accepted. He feared alienating Jewish racists (sorry, citizens who fear the Arabs); but he never had a shot at this group’s vote and he bobbled the ball with the Arabs, an indispensable part of the anti-Bibi coalition.

In contrast to Netanyahu who skillfully built a granite bloc, Lapid instead spent the past year and a half exchanging sneers with the Joint Arab List, which would have been willing to support him from outside the coalition had they received any attention. When they split up from the Balad wing this fall – a calamitous move that caused the waste of 3% of the vote which Balad won on Tuesday, not enough to make the 3.25% threshold – Lapid was on the outside looking in.

At this writing, Meretz has failed to make the threshold as well, wasting another 3% or more. If this holds up it will be the result of the insistence by Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli to resist a union of these two now-small sister parties. Lapid asked them politely to unite, then slinked away when they refused. Can anyone imagine Netanyahu not bashing together whatever heads needed bashing to get past this reckless idiocy?

And then there was, of course, Benny Gantz, who means well but again was allowed to do damage. For starters, he insisted on running as a challenger to Lapid despite being in his bloc, which prevented the prime minister from building momentum as a consensus candidate, no less than Netanyahu.

Second, and more damaging, he united with both old-school right-winger Gideon Saar and former military chief Gadi Eizenkot. Saar was useful running alone as a magnet for voters who want to feel they’re voting for a clean and ethical version of the classic right. He might have faced his own threshold problems but always had the option to drop out. Uniting Saar with Eizenkot, who campaigned as clearly left-wing, eliminated the option of an address for such Rightist voters. So clumsy is Gantz that I doubt he ever investigated Eizenkot’s views. And again, Lapid was left on this outside of this execrable miscue.

INCREDIBLY, HE even failed to capitalize on some momentum to slightly lower the electoral threshold, which we now know would have saved him.

Had these rookie mistakes not occurred, the result – based on the apparent popular vote, which may have even been won by the Lapid bloc – would have been at least a 60-60 tie, keeping Lapid in power until the next election. With a real campaign, Lapid would have had a chance for an actual victory.

Lapid astounded many people with his statement after winning 19 seats in his inaugural 2013 campaign that he assumed he will become prime minister one day. This was viewed as dangerous arrogance, which he spent years trying to undo. Yet, he turned out to have been right: he somehow indeed became prime minister for four months, until this election – the shortest tenure in Israeli history. It’s not nothing, it is more than I have done.

But it is a terrible waste and a remarkable irony. Most people would probably say that Lapid is a gifted politician but perhaps a superficial person – a professional celebrity without a college degree – who may be unfit for the highest office. I beg to differ. In his brief, prematurely assumed moment, he was an excellent prime minister. He projected humanity and depth and the policies he would have pursued had he followed his heart would have been pretty close to what is needed to save Israel.

When he had to fight in Gaza, he kept it short; when he had to negotiate a maritime border deal with impoverished and suspicious Lebanon, he was wisely somewhat generous. He was the positive and human face of the best version of Israel.

He also has the charisma and eloquence to effectively run a brave campaign. Instead, he has proved to be a terrible politician for two reasons. The first was hubris, which is the downfall of many talented people; his 2013 gaffe was no coincidence. Many tried to warn him in recent months and it fell on deaf ears. He seemed – understandably perhaps – a smidgeon too pleased with himself in having attained his audacious goal.

The second is he forgot the fundamental essence of any contest in this world: To win you must enter the ring. Lapid, the former boxer, should have kept this truism well in mind.

Now rational, decent and serious Israelis must hope that there will still be something left to save after a few more years of Netanyahu in alliance with far-right neofascists, who favor expulsions, annexations and death penalties.

If after machinating an end to his trial Netanyahu eventually offers Lapid a unity government to minimize the damage, he should grab it. Yes, it will destroy his credibility but that doesn’t matter much because Israel needs a reset. 

The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press and is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan