Lapid: Elections not a choice between me and Netanyahu, but between future and past

In campaign salvo, Lapid says strong Yesh Atid needed to block ‘extremists’; assails right-religious bloc as ‘those who think only of own good’ and a threat to Israeli democracy

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Yair Lapid gives a campaign speech on July 20, 2022. (Elad Gutman)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid gives a campaign speech on July 20, 2022. (Elad Gutman)

Prime Minister and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid transitioned into campaign mode on Wednesday evening, calling for “a strong Yesh Atid” as the “one thing” that can deliver a stable government “without extremists,” and framing the elections as a choice between the future he represents and the past emblemized by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The decision being placed before the citizens of Israel is not between me and Netanyahu,” Lapid said, in remarks preceding his party’s Tel Aviv faction meeting. “The choice is between the future and the past. The choice is between those who think only of their own good, and those who think of the good of the state.”

“These elections have been forced upon us, but they could be a one-time opportunity to get out of the mess,” he added. “To establish a broad and stable national government, without the extremists. Only one thing will allow this to happen: a big, strong Yesh Atid that will stabilize the Israeli ship.”

While he did not specify who the “extremists” are, Lapid has previously pointed the finger at ultra-right nationalists in the Religious Zionism party and lawmakers of the majority-Arab Joint List. He accused both opposition parties in April of having formed an “unholy, dangerous alliance.”

Lapid leads the Knesset’s second largest party. The architect of the most recent coalition, he guaranteed its investiture by bargaining away the top spot to Naftali Bennett. He only obtained his current seat three weeks ago, when the Knesset’s voluntary disbandment triggered a rotation from now-Alternate Prime Minister Bennett.

The November 1 elections, like the four that have preceded them since 2019, are quickly shaping up to be the fifth referendum on whether Likud leader Netanyahu should be at the helm of government.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu during an inauguration ceremony for a new neighborhood in Beit El, in the West Bank, July 12, 2022. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Netanyahu has painted a target on Lapid’s back, creating an election narrative that voters must choose between his right-religious bloc, a “nationalist” option, or Lapid’s. In the latter scenario, Netanyahu has argued that Lapid can only form a government that includes or relies upon Arab political parties.

The Bennett-Lapid coalition was the most diverse in Israel’s history, bringing together eight parties from the right, left, center and Arab corners of politics. Islamist party Ra’am struggled with security events and ideological compromises but was generally loyal to the coalition.

Less politically palatable for many Jewish — and Arab — voters would be the inclusion of the Joint List party, which disavows active participation in Israeli politics until credible movement is made toward Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu has dangled the Joint List as a boogeyman to rally right-wing voters against the specter of another Lapid-led government.

Though the Joint List has been tossed around as a political hot potato, both sides have been open to cooperation when politically expedient. Bennett and Lapid at one time considered working with the party on certain votes after their beleaguered coalition lost its majority in April, and the opposition coordinated with the Joint List to block several coalition legislative moves.

Meanwhile, the newly merged centrist Blue and White and right-wing New Hope are trying to carve out a possible third way for voters. The race is currently open, with no camp polling with a clear route to achieving the post-election 61-seat minimum majority to form a coalition.

Justice Minister Gideon Saar and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference announcing a merger of their parties, July 10, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Lapid, for his part, last month called Netanyahu and ultra-right political ally Itamar Ben Gvir of Religious Zionism’s Otzma Yehudit faction “the forces of darkness.”

Adding to these themes, Lapid also said Wednesday that among the greatest challenges facing Israel at the moment were “corruption” and Israeli democracy being “in existential danger.”

Netanyahu is currently on trial for three separate corruption cases, and several members of his party have been investigated or are under criminal indictment. His party has railed against what it calls a biased police force and state prosecution service, weak attorneys general, and discriminatory treatment from the Supreme Court — the latter of which it seeks to reform.

At the same time, Lapid spoke of the need to domestically unify in the face of challenges, including the continued global pandemic, war in Ukraine, and cost of living. Unity has been a theme from Lapid since he and Bennett announced their intention to shutter their government in June.

“In difficult times, Israelis always knew how to put their quarrels aside and work together. This is what we need to do now,” Lapid said.

“We can put politics behind us and go to work. Seriously, responsibly, for the benefit of the citizens of Israel,” the prime minister said, adding that: “The State of Israel does not have time for more quarrels, we have too much work to do.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid heads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on July 17, 2022. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

Lapid has previously said that he would endeavor to govern the country as if an election were not looming in the fall, and he said creating “work plans” to address the cost of living, high-tech employment, climate change and trade agreements were on his agenda.

The prime minister’s Yesh Atid party does not hold primaries and has yet to announce its slate for the November election.

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