Fifty-eight percent of Israelis know what they are voting against in this latest election – Benjamin Netanyahu, who never learned the basic democratic lesson that no person is indispensable. But what – or, more important, whom – are we voting for, beyond term limits to preserve democracy?
It’s easy to vote against Bibi – he’s earned it.
We’re voting against his arrogance and demagoguery, his out-of-control son and meddling wife, who has been vetting top security officials for years.
We’re voting against his fear of reining in the ultra-Orthodox and his reign of fear, which exploits Israelis’ anxieties about one another, about foreigners, and about anyone else becoming prime minister.
And we’re voting against a politics of division, distortion and corruption, which has curdled the soul of a once-great leader who used to wake up asking “What’ll keep Israel thriving?” but now asks “What’ll keep me out of jail?”
Still, it’s best to vote for someone or something. Responsible voters should take a stand, look ahead, vote hopes, not just fears or frustrations – even if following the Ed Koch rule: “If you agree with me on nine of 12 issues, vote for me; if you agree with me on 12 of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”
WHO, THEN, just might propel Israel ahead into a post-Covid, post-Bibi, renaissance, building on Netanyahu’s successes, while avoiding his excesses?
Initially, I thought Gideon Sa’ar was “the one” most capable of unseating Netanyahu – even though no one I knew could identity one specific Sa’ar accomplishment, despite years in government.
Ultimately, he couldn’t make the sale. The supposedly viable alternative must always remain viable. As Sa’ar’s popularity plummeted faster than Blue and White voters’ faith in Benny Gantz, Sa’ar’s “I can win” rationale vanished. Sa’ar seems to have been another flash in the pan.
Sa’ar’s stumble boosted Bennett. Of the three leading Bibi-bypassers, Naftali Bennett has been the most effective cabinet minister by far. As Diaspora affairs minister he worked hard for a united but not uniform Jewish people. As education minister he emphasized excellence. And as defense minister he offered thoughtful anti-coronavirus strategies which Bibi blocked.
But Bennett is angling for power, not to unseat Bibi. I believe him when he says that he would ally with Bibi – that’s a deal-breaker for me. I also worry about some Bennett allies and his soft spot for anti-Arab bigots.
So, a vote for Bennett might be a vote for Bibi and is probably a vote for Itamar Ben-Gvir and the Kahanists, along with other Yamina pols tone-deaf to democracy. I hope Bennett serves in the cabinet – but it won’t be thanks to my vote.
That leaves Yair Lapid standing tall for this fence-sitter. A vote for Lapid won’t be a phantom vote for Bibi’s bullying or for Ben-Gvir’s bigotry – Lapid’s resisted both temptations repeatedly.
A vote for Lapid is for someone who checked his ego at Blue and White’s door, deferring to the three generals. Clearly, Lapid’s priority remains liberating Israel from Bibi’s grip and from these endless electoral stalemates.
Fortunately, he’s proved even more compelling. Read Yesh Atid’s platform and Lapid’s recent Times of Israel interview. Lapid has matured as a politician. This is his moment – he’s ready to rule.
Voting for Yair Lapid is voting for sanity, clean government and centrism, which to him is “not a geometrical point between Right and Left. It’s a worldview.” It’s a vote for Zionism’s big-tent consensus, which bars anti-Arab Jewish demagogues and anti-Israel Arab demagogues.
Lapid’s not the perfect candidate. I don’t agree with him on everything. But, eerily, many of the statements he makes, I would make, too:
“I’m not willing,” he says, “to run from one studio to another and bad-mouth my opponents. It seems like a bad idea in the midst of a national crisis.” Touché!
Netanyahu, Lapid notes, is too afraid of the ultra-Orthodox even to mention the Supreme Court decision allowing non-Orthodox converts in Israel to immigrate under the Law of Return. Lapid insists: “It cannot be that Israel is the only Western country in which Jews do not have freedom of religion.” Bravo.
Nor – I add – will Bibi denounce allies who speak of fellow Jews in despicable ways. That proves “Netanyahu is by no means the leader or the prime minister of the Jewish people. He’s the prime minister of half of Israelis, and that’s it.”
“On the Palestinians,” Lapid differs “from the Israeli Right because I believe in the two-state solution. I differ from the Israeli Left both because I’m a security hawk and because I do not believe in the end-of-conflict theory.... There’s also an emotional element: I don’t think we are to blame for the failure of every former negotiation. The Palestinians want to destroy us more than they want to build a nation.”
As for the International Criminal Court probe, Lapid snorts: “To hell with them.”
Finally, added bonus: While Netanyahu has carried the anti-Iranian nuclear torch for decades, his effectiveness with the Biden-Harris administration diminishes daily. Lapid can explain the dangers of going soft on Iran to Joe Biden – and to American Jews – and be heard.
In short: the closer I look at Gideon Sa’ar, the less I see; the closer I look at Naftali Bennett and his (too far) Yamina Party, the more problems I see; but the closer I look at Yair Lapid, the better he looks.
So enough fence-sitting. For once, Israelis should vote for decency and a good future – Yesh Atid!
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.