Dispatch

How a Journalist-Turned-Politician Became the Best Hope for Israel’s Anyone-but-Bibi Camp

Centrist Yair Lapid refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition last year. Now the decision is paying off.

Israeli lawmaker and leader of centrist Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 2, 2015.
Israeli lawmaker and leader of centrist Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 2, 2015. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—The Israeli politician who may stand the best chance of defeating long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in this month’s election has little name recognition abroad and one simple message at home: sanity.

That’s the main slogan of opposition leader Yair Lapid’s campaign that will culminate on March 23, when Israelis go to the polls for a fourth time in just two years. In an interview in his Tel Aviv offices earlier this week, Lapid said Netanyahu had fostered a politics of darkness and was taking Israel down a ruinous path.

“You have a prime minister with three serious criminal indictments against him and who has defined the future government he wants to form as a coalition … with the worst kind of dark, racist, ultra-nationalist, and bigoted [forces],” he said. “There’s a fierce attack ongoing against the rule of law, the Supreme Court, the media, and the entire concept of Israel as a liberal country.”

In recent polling, Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party is running a strong second place behind Netanyahu’s Likud. More importantly, a bloc of parties committed to toppling Netanyahu holds a razor-thin lead over Netanyahu’s potential coalition of ultra-Orthodox, religious, and far-right pro-settler parties. Notably, the latter includes the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) faction, a fascist movement spiritually tied to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane (who was barred from politics in the late 1980s for his anti-Arab racism).

As the leader of what will likely be the largest party in the anti-Netanyahu camp, Lapid stands at least a reasonable chance of becoming Israel’s next prime minister.

But forming such a governing coalition in Israel’s fractious multiparty system won’t be easy—“chaos,” as Lapid put it with a smile. “But there is a real need here,” he went on, “for sane and balanced leadership, and the current [poll] numbers show that there’s an audience for it.”

At 57, Lapid is a natural standard-bearer for liberal Israel—but also in some ways an unlikely one.

A former prominent columnist and author, he spent years in the public spotlight as a broadcaster—first hosting his own late-night talk show and then anchoring the country’s most watched Friday night newscast.

He is also the son of another journalist-turned-politician, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who served as a government minister in the early 2000s.

As a journalist, the younger Lapid wrote columns that reflected the opinions and concerns of secular Jewish Israelis—often from the vantage point of upscale north Tel Aviv, where he lives. But his TV roles, showcasing his telegenic good looks and on-air charisma, gave him broader appeal and made him a mainstream celebrity—the kind called upon to host public events like the annual remembrance day ceremony for Israel’s fallen soldiers.

In 2012, he formed Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) as an avowedly centrist party focused on economic issues and, in particular, on countering the outsized influence that ultra-Orthodox parties wield in Israeli politics. Yesh Atid was the surprise of the following year’s election, winning the second largest number of votes behind Likud. Lapid became finance minister under Netanyahu in a short-lived government; it remains his only executive experience to date, a resume hole played up often by his rivals.

Since then, Lapid has failed in successive elections to unseat Netanyahu. In the run-up to the 2019 vote—the first of what would be three inconclusive rounds—he joined forces with retired military chief Benny Gantz to form the Blue and White party. To make the political marriage work, and at the behest of their voter base, Lapid agreed to put his ego aside and relinquished the top spot, with Gantz, a political neophyte, eventually running as the party’s sole candidate for prime minister.

But when Gantz went back on the party’s core election promise and agreed to join Netanyahu in government last year, citing the crisis posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Lapid split from the Blue and White party and remained in the opposition.

That decision ended up being a stroke of political genius; the grand coalition between Netanyahu and Gantz lasted a mere seven months, leading to the current election. Center-left voters are expected to punish Gantz for his naivety in trusting Netanyahu while polls show them increasingly flocking to Lapid.

“I don’t say ‘I told you so’—because in future, I’ll need to gather even people I’ve had disagreements with” and work with them, said Lapid, dressed in his signature black jeans, black T-shirt, black blazer, and black dress shoes.

“[But] it’s not right to sit in government with a man who has serious criminal indictments against him … that’s not committed to liberal values … and who is willing to sacrifice Israel’s international legitimacy for internal [political] or personal considerations.”

Lapid said Netanyahu had damaged Israel’s public standing by, among other things, alienating the Democratic party in the United States, creating the false impression that former President Barack Obama was an enemy, and completely aligning Israel with the Republican party.

“And not even with the entire Republican party,” Lapid added, “but with the [Donald] Trump wing of the Republican party. Trump did a lot of good things for Israel”—things Lapid wholly supported, like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—“but for years, I told Netanyahu this will end badly. It’s cyclical, and there’ll be a Democratic president … and now you even have a Democratic Congress and Senate. And all of them made up of Democrats angry with [Netanyahu].”

Lapid spent part of the interview discussing the Biden administration’s intention to return to the Iran nuclear agreement, signed under Obama but jettisoned in 2018 by Trump. Like Netanyahu, Lapid believes that returning to the original agreement would be the worst option. He argues for a better deal or no deal at all and a continuation of sanctions—a consensus position currently amongst Israel’s defense establishment and the vast majority of the political class.

He said that for precisely this reason, it was critical to cultivate Biden and ensure that Israel is not frozen out of any renewed Iran nuclear talks, as it was in the run-up to the 2015 deal.

“And with Americans,” he added, “you need to speak in the language of shared values. It’s the basis for this friendship … and if Israel won’t embody these values anymore … [over time] it will be in danger of losing its special status in the U.S., and this must not happen.”

Lapid also underscored his support for a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel, with a series of provisions, including no re-division of Jerusalem and no right of return for Palestinian refugees to the homes they left behind in 1948.

He said he was under no illusion that Israelis and Palestinians would “live in complete peace” under such an arrangement—a point he uses to differentiate himself from the Israeli left. But there are many states in the world, he argued, that remain in conflict—so long as there is a border in place.

“We need two states because a new Palestinian leadership will rise up and come to Israel and demand, not a state—but voting rights … What will we do? Tell them no, and we’re no longer a democracy. Tell them yes, and we’re no longer a Jewish state. … You can’t tell the Americans … that you don’t agree to the principle of one person, one vote. There is no way to explain it in the U.S. In this sense, Netanyahu is leading us to disaster.”

Lapid said he was trying to resist being drawn into Netanyahu’s traditional campaign style of mudslinging and fear mongering and his framing of the election as the muscular right against the treacherous left—Netanyahu against Lapid.

“I’m trying to move the debate to what kind of government will there be. It may sound like a subtle difference, but it’s not,” he said, highlighting a more positive political culture.

Whether he ultimately succeeds could depend largely on the fate of other parties on the center left. Several of them are in danger of not passing the electoral threshold for entry into the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament (3.25 percent of the overall vote or roughly four seats). Lapid urged all of them to do the responsible thing and consider dropping out to avoid wasted votes that would hand the premiership to Netanyahu.

“Pity votes don’t stand up to the test come election day,” Lapid said, in a reference to Gantz, whose party is teetering.

Lapid will also need the support of politicians from the right who are aiming for the prime minister’s job, including Likud defector and former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, now head of the newly created New Hope party, and former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, now head of the Yamina party. If Netanyahu fails to win a parliamentary majority, Lapid said, all of them would need to come together to form a coalition during the traditional post-election haggling period. “It will be a negotiation from hell,” he said.

Lapid said he hoped Israelis understand the choice at the ballot as an existential one for the country’s future as a Western democracy.

“The politics of fear and hate will always have buyers like we see in other places in the world,” he said. “But we also see in other places in the world that the politics of tolerance and sanity actually have more buyers.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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