Is the understated Lapid betting a scathing, divisive Netanyahu will defeat himself?

The new interim PM managed, briefly, to assemble a coalition that kept the Likud leader from power. Without Bennett, but with the premiership, how does he aim to repeat the feat?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Outoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and his interim successor Yair Lapid speak after the passage of a bill to dissolve the Knesset, June 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Outoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and his interim successor Yair Lapid speak after the passage of a bill to dissolve the Knesset, June 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

An earthquake hit northern Israel on Wednesday evening, just as outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was wrapping up the final business of his collapsed government — pledging to help his interim successor Yair Lapid, announcing he wouldn’t be running in the coming elections, and handing what little remains of his Yamina party to the control of longtime ally Ayelet Shaked.

The death of the Bennett-Lapid coalition — cemented on Thursday morning with a Knesset vote that set November 1 as the date of our fifth election since April 2019 — was anything but an earthquake. It was, rather, the inevitable culmination of a relentless process by which an ambitious alliance of largely well-intentioned but strange political bedfellows was gradually crushed.

A few of its members, from several of its component parties, failed to appreciate and solidly support what their party leaders had so improbably put together — a radically disparate alliance conceived in unified hostility to Benjamin Netanyahu that was compelled to set aside divisive ideological positions and govern by consensus. And another few of its members, from Bennett’s own Yamina slate, found they could not live with those required ideological compromises — not under the constant demonizing pressure exerted by Netanyahu and his loyalists.

As with the four previous electoral bouts, Netanyahu, now 72, still fiery and indomitable, is in one corner, scathing and contemptuous of those who dare to challenge him. Unlike those four past contests, however, there’s an incumbent in the other corner — and interim prime minister Yair Lapid (a former amateur boxer) has precisely four months to persuade the electorate to let him retain the title.

But if outcampaigning the hyper-experienced, nimble and ferocious Netanyahu were not onerous enough, Lapid must overcome another challenge: Israeli demographics.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox-nationalist communities — Netanyahu’s core allies — have long been growing faster than Israel’s secular community. That inexorable shift in electoral weight has been heightened these past two decades by the gradual move rightwards of the middle ground — in an Israel traumatized by the violence of the Second Intifada and viciously persuaded by Hamas and Hezbollah that relinquishing territory was no recipe for peace.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset ahead of the vote to dissolve parliament, June 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Potentially offsetting the demographic shifts is the gradual growth of Israel’s Arab constituency. By denigrating Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party as supporters of terrorism, as he did again in the Knesset on Thursday and can be relied upon to do in the coming months, Netanyahu is seeking both to mobilize his voters and alienate Arab voters from the election process. Low Arab turnout on polling day would significantly bolster Netanyahu’s comeback chances.

Right to the very bitter end, all the party leaders who had joined forces to defeat Netanyahu last year refused to partner with him and give him a majority in the now-disbanded Knesset. Avigdor Liberman, Benny Gantz and especially Gideon Sa’ar would have preferred to stave off this next encounter with the electorate. Bennett is stepping away altogether. All of them could have guaranteed their political places for a few more years in Netanyahu’s embrace. All of them resisted — former partners apparently irrevocably alienated.

Netanyahu’s caustic and confident speech in the Knesset on Thursday, an opening election roar, left no doubt that he will be waging a divisive campaign — championing a tough, proud, patriotic camp against the supposed weaklings on the left and their ostensible Arab terrorist allies. Now that it’s election time, there’s no more wooing of allies-turned-opponents.

Briefly, by enlisting Bennett, Lapid managed to assemble just enough support to oust Netanyahu in March 2021 — to overcome the Knesset’s large right-wing majority with a narrow anti-Netanyahu majority. But the partnerships could not hold. Patently preferring to position himself on the political high ground, comfortably understated, amiable, calm, and manifestly skilled at building alliances, Lapid has to somehow outflank Netanyahu again.

Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, speaks with Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas ahead of the vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, June 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Lapid chose not to speak at Thursday’s Knesset dispersal session, just as he barely spoke when the coalition was sworn in last June. He barely spoke when Bennett announced the coalition’s collapse 10 days ago. And his Thursday afternoon prime ministerial handover session with Bennett was brief, too, and anything but bombastic. Addressing the challenge of the premiership, Lapid said modestly: “We’ll do the best we can for a Jewish, democratic state, good and strong and thriving, because that is the job, and it’s bigger than all of us.”

Perhaps he believes that his rival’s scorched earth campaigning style, set against his own hoped-for four months of steady competence, will do the job for him — that enough of the electorate will be alienated by Netanyahu, just as Bennett and Sa’ar and Gantz and Liberman were. Perhaps he believes that Netanyahu might defeat himself.

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