Mr. Lapid goes to Washington

Mr. Lapid goes to Washington

The centrist politician has turned jetsetter in a bid to challenge Likud’s rule and position himself as the next prime minister

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks to voters on March 16, 2015. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks to voters on March 16, 2015. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

A senior Israeli political figure spent a great deal of the past week in the United States, consulting with senators, White House officials and a cabinet secretary about the stalled Palestinian peace talks and the impending Iranian nuclear deal.

The Israeli personage was not Prime Minister (and Foreign Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu, nor the minister in charge of the Iran talks (Yuval Steinitz) or the peace talks (Silvan Shalom).

In fact, he wasn’t a minister at all, not anymore. He was Yair Lapid, the former finance minister who now sits in the opposition as head of the 11-seat Yesh Atid party, unwanted by Netanyahu in the new government after the two quarreled constantly in the last one.

But that’s just fine by Lapid, because, as he explained in an interview from New York late last week, he has bigger plans for his party, and his country.

Israelis care about the economy, but they don’t have a record of anointing prime ministers on any issue but defense

The trip’s schedule marked it as decidedly diplomatic in nature, including meetings with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Democratic senators Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, talks at the Brookings Institution, the American Jewish Committee and the Park Avenue Synagogue, among other venues, and top Israeli officials such as UN Ambassador Ron Prosor.

Lapid’s next stop will be the UK, where he plans to tell British leaders a boycott of Israel “only serves to stir up hatred and… undermines any hope for diplomatic progress,” according to a Yesh Atid press release earlier this month.

This sort of intensive overseas diplomacy is a marked change for the former news anchor. Lapid’s Yesh Atid party ran with astonishing success in the 2013 elections on an exclusively domestic economic and social platform, upsetting the predictions of pollsters by netting 19 seats. He then served as finance minister in the last government, where his party held exclusively domestic posts – finance, health, science, welfare.

Yair Lapid at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 30, 2014. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)
Yair Lapid at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 30, 2014. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)

Lapid’s brushes with matters of high strategy, war and peacemaking came only in the security cabinet, where he received occasional briefings from the military and intelligence services and could vote on major strategic questions Netanyahu chose to bring to the cabinet. And while he was constantly at odds with fellow cabinet members on domestic issues – his housing reforms, ultra-Orthodox draft reforms, the nation-state bill, civil marriage and more – Lapid’s voting record on security matters, as far as can be discerned, was decidedly less rebellious.

That focus is changing dramatically for the centrist leader, and the reason is clear. Asked about the motive for his trip, he says simply, “Yesh Atid said from the start we want to be a ruling party, because we want to change the country, and that’s the way you do it.”

‘The Israeli left won’t win elections in this country’

Countless small and mid-sized parties have risen and soon fallen on domestic issues. Lapid’s own experience demonstrates the limits of domestic-focused politics. Yesh Atid came into existence, won 19 Knesset seats and five cabinet posts, collapsed to 11 seats, found itself relegated to the opposition, and saw large swaths of its constituency switch to the newest centrist upstart Kulanu – all in the span of two years.

Israelis care about the economy, but they don’t have a record of anointing prime ministers on any issue but defense, at least in the past two decades. And when it comes to defense, it is no accident that Israelis have chosen Likud’s Netanyahu four times in 19 years. Polls suggest Netanyahu enjoys one clear political advantage over his rivals: Israelis trust his cautious (detractors say obdurate) approach to national security.

And so, ever since the March 17 elections, Lapid has set out to build a new plank to his party’s political identity and image: that of a defense-focused alternative to the ruling Likud.

Lapid may be a relative political neophyte, but he is no novice when it comes to reading the national mood. He became one of Israel’s most popular newspaper columnists by giving voice — as more partisan pundits rarely could — to the mainstream secular public’s often contradictory and nuanced impulses.

In his new approach, he believes he is once again reading the national mood, which distrusts the left but does not place great hope in the victorious right.

“I don’t believe a change in government can come from the left,” he said. “The Israeli left won’t win elections in this country for reasons that are demographic, sociological, historic — everyone has their list of reasons. But when you look at the values and beliefs shared by most Israeli citizens, you see that they won’t go left.”

But Likud’s winning streak at the ballot box, rooted in the public’s security concerns, does not mean it is invincible to an alternative, as long as that alternative can win the public’s trust on security.

That condition is why change “can only come from the center. Israelis will vote for a large centrist party, as they’ve done before.

“We’re not a leftist party, we’re not a party of the center-left. I come from a nationalist home, like a large part of the party’s leadership… I’m a security hawk, and always have been.”

Thus on Sunday, Lapid put out a statement defending the campaign of Ortal Tamam to have state funding stripped from an Arab Israeli theater putting on a play by the terrorist Walid Daka, who is now serving life in prison for the kidnapping-murder of Ortal’s uncle Moshe when he was a 19-year-old soldier.

“After all the media circus around this issue, the story is a pretty simple one, about what is just (and what isn’t): we cannot, under the excuse of enlightenment, fund this insanity,” he wrote on Facebook next to a photo of him standing next to Ortal.

The question of state funding for art that appears to glorify terrorists has led the headlines in recent days and become another dividing line between left and right. Lapid has waded in with a vigorous defense of the right.

Indeed, Lapid’s accusations against the left sound a lot like those leveled by the right: “We’re not among those who say the boycott movements were born because of Israeli policy,” he says when asked the difference between Yesh Atid and the left, “but because they’re anti-Semites and haters of Israel.

“And we talk about separation from the Palestinians not on the basis of human rights” – a discourse discredited, he suggests, in the violent aftermaths of the Oslo peace talks and the Gaza withdrawal – “but on the Israeli need to preserve a Jewish and Zionist country.”

Yair Lapid, January 1, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
Yair Lapid, January 1, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

The party’s security credentials affirmed, Lapid turns to the core message on which he pins his party’s ambitious hopes: whereas Likud rules by accommodating narrow sectors and communities (read: the ultra-Orthodox), Lapid promises he won’t.

“A center party seeks a strong Israeli center – not just politically. It’s okay that there are different communities in the country, but they need first of all to obey the law, and to share equally in the rights and obligations of all.”

For Yesh Atid, “center” means “mainstream.” It is a euphemism for a middle-class majority that feels overburdened by the unequal demands of narrow sectors and communities. That feeling, Lapid believes, is widespread on the right as well as the left. It is where Netanyahu, whose long reign necessarily entailed political compromises with minorities such as the ultra-Orthodox, is vulnerable.

This battle for the mainstream “isn’t a tactical position” for the party, but constitutes the catalyzing culture war Lapid believes can transform his middling party into a contender for national leadership: “It’s a set of beliefs and opinions that I think most of Israel’s citizens share….We have a country that is slowly growing more fragmented, more divided, that doesn’t have the inner strength and strong governance anymore to take the big steps it has to take. We haven’t had that for along time, and it won’t come from either the left or the right.”

In its quest for ruling-party status, Yesh Atid “will turn to the right first. I believe there are a great many people, who were once called ‘[Menachem] Begin’s people,’ who are not satisfied with what is happening to Likud, and they’re right.”

It’s been 16 years since the left won an Israeli election. That’s evidence enough, Lapid believes, that any serious alternative to center-right rule must come from the right-leaning center.

Getting real

Yesh Atid’s ambitions are interesting in what they suggest about the complicated impulses driving the Israeli electorate. But that doesn’t make them realistic.

Even at their lowest ebb, Labor and Likud could count on 13 and 12 seats’ worth of devoted voters, respectively, in 2009 and 2006. These were voters who stuck with their party when victory was hopeless, when its leadership was unpopular and seemed utterly unable to affect the national agenda. This is the “base” of activists whose political identities are in some sense tied up with the party itself, not with a particular leader or campaign.

Now at a similar “low” by the standards of an aspiring ruling party, Yesh Atid must be asking itself if it has found its devoted base. Many pundits were impressed that Lapid managed to preserve 11 of his 19 seats in the March election. Yesh Atid was widely expected to do worse. But this accomplishment came after a grueling and generally successful campaign in which party officials estimate the party’s leaders personally spoke to as many as 100,000 Israelis.

On issue after issue, Lapid seems to be offering exactly what he claims to represent: the views of the Israeli mainstream

How many of those 11 seats are assured in future races? Will the party be able to rise above that number, or will it find itself stuck in a permanent, frenetic campaign for the same fickle constituency?

“We weren’t running for the premiership in the last campaign,” Lapid said. “We were licking our wounds from the last term. The funny thing is that while we tried to tell people what we had accomplished in the campaign, they finally saw it only when the [new coalition] began dismantling all of it, from equal national service to core curriculum [in ultra-Orthodox schools] to keeping the cabinet small. Now everyone knows what we did, and it’s time to move to the next level.”

And so Lapid is still campaigning, piecing together a diplomatic resume befitting, so he hopes, a contender for the premiership.

And what is he telling the many foreign leaders he is meeting? On issue after issue, he seems to be offering exactly what he claims to represent: the views of the Israeli mainstream.

“I tell them that on the Iranian issue, except for the very radical left, there’s no sane person among us [Israelis] who doesn’t say the same thing: that Iran must not go nuclear, and that means not taking off the table any possible means for preventing that.

“On BDS, I always say we have to move from defense to attack. With boycotts we don’t apologize and explain that ‘we’re a democratic country.’ It’s true we’re a democracy, but BDS aren’t human rights groups. They’re puppets of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the most radical movements of people who hang homosexuals and oppress women and cut off people’s hands. And all those people who think they’re doing something positive in Europe and America and who support this beautiful idea of defending the weak, they have to be told in a powerful way that they’re effectively supporting terror organizations of the type that brought 9/11 to the United States and the terror attacks on the undergrounds of London and Madrid, and Islamic State and al-Qaeda.”

And on the Palestinians, Lapid’s message, perhaps unsurprisingly, echoes both Netanyahu’s regional hopes and Herzog’s case for a West Bank withdrawal.

“We have to go to a regional conference, together with a coalition of moderates in the Arab world, countries that fear the collapse of the state: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, some of whom are now cooperating with each other in Yemen. They understand today that the central threat they face is the dissolution of the state and the rise of various ‘caliphate’ groups, and they’re looking for a partner. They have to choose between two old enemies, Iran and Israel, and they prefer Israel. We have to cooperate with them, to go to a regional conference that includes the Palestinian Authority, and to start talking about the painful act of separating from the Palestinians, because the State of Israel can’t begin to absorb into itself 3.5 million Palestinians and still remain Jewish and democratic.”

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