Middle Israel: Lapid’s moment of truth

The last obstacle on the path to a broad government should now make it happen.

Yair Lapid  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yair Lapid
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘Let us live in this country!” cried billboard ads in autumn 1950, decrying the rationing system by which the young economy’s stewards struggled to make ends meet.
Run by the bourgeois General Zionists Party and designed to woo the same liberalism that is now represented by Yesh Atid, the slogan worked. The ruling Labor Party was dealt a ringing blow in Israel’s first municipal elections, losing a quarter of the following it won in the previous year’s general election.
The General Zionists, at the same time, soared from 5.3% to 25.5% of the vote, a feat that by the next parliamentary election translated to 20 Knesset seats, up from 13, besides an additional four seats won by the equally anti-socialist Progressive Party. Labor hastily undid the rationing system, and the General Zionists became Ben-Gurion’s senior coalition partner.
The liberal electorate’s parties repeatedly changed names, but their following was always there, and so was their calling. Now that calling means producing the broad government that the mainstream electorate evidently demands.
LIBERAL ZIONISM’s first leader was Theodor Herzl.
A secular capitalist, Herzl was mentally distant from Zionist politics’ future fixtures – the socialists, the Revisionists and Modern Orthodoxy.
That classification is even truer of Herzl’s successor, Chaim Weizmann. Unfortunately for the liberal cause, Weizmann focused on statesmanship and avoided the hands-on leadership of the party with which he was loosely identified, the General Zionists.
The political Center thus meandered along the decades between a succession of mostly forgotten formations, from the Liberal Party (the merger of the General Zionists and Progressives) and the Independent Liberals (those who refused to join that union) to Dash, the Third Way, the Center Party, Shinui, Kadima, Yesh Atid and now Blue and White.
There were towering figures in some of these, from the Progressives’ Pinhas Rosen, who built Israel’s judiciary as justice minister in its first 12 years, to Shinui’s Amnon Rubinstein, who as communications minister pioneered Israel’s privatization revolution by exposing Bezeq to competition.
The liberal politicians’ finest hour came in 1985, when finance minister Yitzhak Moda’i spearheaded the economic stabilization program that shifted the economy from its founders’ socialism to the capitalism that has governed it ever since.
However, the political Center would never again leave a truly deep imprint on Israeli history, not even when it arguably won the country’s leadership with Ehud Olmert’s election as prime minister in 2006.
This is besides the fact that when Moda’i led the economy, it was as a member of the Likud, thanks to Menachem Begin’s vision back in 1965, when he merged his Herut Party with the Liberal Party and thus formed the nucleus of what later became the Likud.
Yes, the centrist parties frequently installed able technocrats in government, but the real shots were called by either the Likud or Labor. For instance, Begin left his centrist coalition partner, Dash, out of the loop when he brewed the Camp David Accords, so much so that one of Dash’s ministers, former Mossad head Meir Amit, resigned in protest of what he misdiagnosed as lack of progress in the peace talks.
Similarly, by the time Ariel Sharon decided to retreat from Gaza, his centrist partner, Shinui, had been shed, due to its anti-religious intransigence, and thus was but a marginal player in what really mattered, the Disengagement, which it supported from the opposition. Its biggest achievement was the dismantlement of the Religious Affairs Ministry, a largely symbolic measure that was also soon reversed.
Now this history of wasted political capital can change, if Yair Lapid will make way for the broad government that he can deliver and the situation begs.
LAPID HAS climbed a tall tree, demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leave his office at once, as opposed to Benny Gantz, who is reportedly willing to accept President Reuven Rivlin’s suggestion that Netanyahu step aside once indicted.
Lapid’s stance is unreasonable, on several planes.
Morally, it is right, even natural, to expect Netanyahu to follow the example Yitzhak Rabin set in 1977, when he resigned upon the prosecution’s decision to indict his wife. However, Netanyahu has yet to be indicted. Until he is, it is wrong to turn the moral expectation that he step aside into a political ultimatum.
Legally, the idea of politicians executing each other is as foul as the idea of politicians shielding each other from the law’s reach. And politically, Lapid has not won enough votes to weigh on the political system the way he now does.
Beyond all this, the week’s fighting in Gaza, and the harmony it unveiled between Netanyahu and Gantz, have underscored what Middle Israelis have been saying all along – namely, that the differences between the Likud and Blue and White are too narrow for them to avoid sharing power.
Moreover, Blue and White represents an alliance between urban liberals like Lapid, and children of the old Labor milieu like Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, all products of Labor-affiliated farming communities (Moshav Kfar Ahim, Kibbutz Grofit and Moshav Hagor, respectively). It is a socially durable combination, and now is its chance to matter, the way previous centrist parties did not.
All four espouse the classical liberal agenda of economic freedom, civic rights and judicial independence. Where they differ is Bibi’s fate, with Lapid alone demanding Netanyahu’s immediate departure. For his sake and ours, he must now forgo this demand.
If he does not retreat, Lapid risks splitting Blue and White. It is a dynamic the political Center tried before, in 1977, when Dash split between those who joined Begin’s government and those who didn’t. The result was the party’s extinction.
A similar thing happened to the Center last decade, when Shinui’s ideological purism resulted first in its political marginalization, then in its electoral disappearance. Incidentally, the man who presided over that miscalculation was the late Tommy Lapid. Hopefully, the son will not follow his father’s ghost.