Lapid’s silence on Litzman highlights division in Blue and White leadership

Police call for charges against the ultra-Orthodox politician comes in the midst of internal furor over Yair Lapid’s anti-Haredi campaign

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

From left: Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya'alon, Gabi Ashkenazi of the Blue and White party at its official campaign launch in Shefayim, July 14, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
From left: Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya'alon, Gabi Ashkenazi of the Blue and White party at its official campaign launch in Shefayim, July 14, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The police recommendations, published Tuesday, to charge Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman with bribery, fraud and breach of trust will likely not have any effect on the election result for his party, United Torah Judaism. Most ultra-Orthodox voters will not see anything wrong with the help Litzman allegedly gave pedophile Malka Leifer and the Goldy’s deli, where he would purchase products and which was cited for health violations.

But still, one would have expected the saga to play into the hands of Litzman’s opponents — including Avigdor Liberman, for example. But the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party leader, who has long been under corruption investigations himself, loathes law enforcement authorities even more than he objects to a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

More interesting is the reaction to the Litzman case — or rather the lack thereof — by the Blue and White party’s number 2, Yair Lapid.

The Litzman case seemed to come at the ideal time for Blue and White’s leaders — on the heels of a video Lapid published on Sunday in which he mocked the ultra-Orthodox for demanding funds in coalition talks. Litzman, Lapid’s arch-rival, is suspected of bribery and fraud, which seems to reinforce Lapid’s argument: The Haredi politicians love public money and are only interested in themselves and their associates.

(R) Deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman seen during a press conference after meeting with president Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90); (L) A private investigator tagged Malka Leifer as she spoke on the phone, while sitting on a bench in Bnei Brak, on December 14, 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)

But everyone in Blue and White kept silent — not one word about Litzman, and not one word about the ultra-Orthodox. As of Wednesday morning, Lapid had still said nothing.

It’s possible that eventually he’ll feel compelled to speak out about a matter that he is, after all, passionate about. But for the time being, Lapid has more to lose than to gain by opening his mouth.

In the eyes of some of his colleagues at the top of Blue and White, Lapid is ruining whatever chance the party had of winning the September elections and wresting the leadership from Benjamin Netanyahu. It is safe to assume that Tuesday was dedicated to internal debates and quarrels in the party, despite the show of togetherness for the cameras on the Gaza border by its leading foursome.

“Lapid’s remarks are destroying our campaign,” one senior Blue and White member told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language site, on Tuesday. “I’m not talking about how the Haredim feel. It was clear that they would go on a ‘gevalt’ campaign after Lapid’s remarks. I am only talking about us.”

In Israeli political parlance, “gevalt” campaigns are all-out scare campaigns, employed to spook and rally voters against a perceived threat. Netanyahu has used the tactic effectively in the final days of the last two elections to boost his Likud party’s showing by several seats at the expense of other right-wing parties. In April, Blue and White similarly managed to sway tens of thousands of center-left voters in the eleventh hour.

Yair Lapid of the Blue and White party, in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“We have a clear stance — it’s either Gantz or Netanyahu,” the senior Blue and White member continued. “Everything about us is Netanyahu and why we have to unseat him. We understood today from Lapid that he, too, was aiming in that direction and his post” — the video mocking the ultra-Orthodox for seeking huge amounts of funding — “was meant to portray Netanyahu as weak and susceptible to pressure, but that’s not what came out. Lapid derailed the campaign and screwed up our strategy.

“After all, we don’t want to argue with anyone, just with Netanyahu,” stressed the source. “This is ‘just not Bibi.’ Do you see us arguing with [Democratic Camp candidate] Ehud Barak or [Labor leader] Amir Peretz, or even the ultra-Orthodox? What is that good for?

“We are also not arguing with Liberman. What good would that do us? I hear the explanations that Lapid is attacking the ultra-Orthodox to get back the votes Liberman is taking from us. What is he taking from us? A single seat? Barak is taking more. Is this worth all the turmoil?”

The developing rift within the top brass of Blue and White was first reported by Zman Yisrael in May, before the current elections were on the table. The conflict began back then over a series of statements by Lapid against the ultra-Orthodox and their capacity to join the workforce, the Chief Rabbinate and the treatment of Reform Jews.

Blue and White’s Moshe Ya’alon is seen during a visit to the Gaza border area with other members of the party on March 13, 2019. (Flash90)

In addition, Zman Yisrael revealed internal discussions within Blue and White on the eve of the April elections, and the objection to merging Lapid’s Yesh Atid party into the union of Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party.

The objections were led back then by Gantz’s strategic adviser, Ronen Tzur — who has since been fired by Lapid — though MK Chili Tropper, a Gantz confidant, held a similar opinion.

Nor has criticism of the rotation agreement, by which if Blue and White wins the elections, party leader Gantz will be premier for 2.5 years followed by Lapid for 1.5 years, subsided for a moment. The party’s number 3, Ya’alon, has already been quoted as saying that “the rotation between Gantz and Lapid is harming us. It would be better for Lapid to back down.” There is no reason to assume Ya’alon has changed his mind.

On Tuesday, a senior Blue and White member made unequivocal remarks to Zman Yisrael about the loaded issue.

“This is not an easy thing to say, but Yair Lapid is standing between us and victory in the elections. Had he given up the rotation, there would have been a massive current of traditional voters from all parties toward us,” he said. “I wish there were a chance of that happening, but sadly it is off the table.”

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