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Lapid: ‘Extremist’ Netanyahu and Ben Gvir ‘dragging us in dangerous directions’

Ahead of elections, caretaker PM says right-wing rivals are divisive and anti-democratic, calls on moderates to reject their vision of Israel

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

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at a conference organized by Idea: Center for Liberal Democracy, July 21, 2022. (Sahar Levy)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at a conference organized by Idea: Center for Liberal Democracy, July 21, 2022. (Sahar Levy)

Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Thursday labeled opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir as “extremists,” framing the autumn election as a battle for Israeli cohesiveness and democracy.

“There are the extremists who are dragging us in dangerous directions, each for their own reasons. Netanyahu because of the [ongoing corruption] trial, Ben Gvir because he was and remains the man who hung a picture of the murderer Baruch Goldstein in the living room,” Lapid said in Thursday remarks delivered at a symposium held by Idea: Center for Liberal Democracy.

Lapid called out his right-wing political rivals the day after delivering a statement in which he said his Yesh Atid party offers the best hope of forming a government without unnamed “extremists.”

The November 1 election is quickly becoming another referendum on whether or not to return former prime minister Netanyahu to power, following the pattern laid out by four previous elections since 2019. Netanyahu has cast Lapid and the so-called “change bloc” he led with now-Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as weak and reliant upon support from Arab politicians. Lapid, for his part, labeled Netanyahu’s bloc as divisive and anti-democratic.

Lapid on Thursday framed “the great Israeli struggle” as a match between “those who believe that we are one big family versus those who are trying to dismantle us from within.”

“We have a role and we have a mission: to maintain a democratic Israel, a state of law, a state that has respect for its citizens, that is not controlled by the most extreme voices and forces within it,” he continued.

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)

In particular, Lapid pointed to recent statements from the Netanyahu-led Likud party and its political allies that call for crushing leftists, replacing the current attorney general, and changing rules to bar the indictment of a sitting prime minister.

Netanyahu is currently on trial for three corruption cases that began while he was in power. Denying all charges, he claims they were fabricated by a biased police force and state prosecution service, overseen by a weak attorney general, in league with political opponents and the leftist media.

“The extremists shout louder,” Lapid said, but added: “The moderates and the sane win because people are not willing to hate their neighbors.”

In particular, Lapid said that the vision of Israel pushed by aggressively anti-Arab and pro-settlement lawmaker Ben Gvir is part of what will push moderates to action.

“They look at Ben Gvir and say to themselves, ‘I’m not prepared for this to be what my country looks like, and I’m not prepared for this to be what my life looks like,'” the prime minister said.

Lapid left room in his Wednesday remarks on extremists for Hebrew-language commentators to wonder if they extended to the majority-Arab Joint List party. The Joint List eschews active participation in Israeli politics, but has collaborated both with the Bennett-Lapid coalition and the Likud-led opposition when politically expedient.

The Arab vote is expected to be critical in the upcoming election, which is currently polling to turn on a small handful of seats. Major shifts are not expected, with the possible exception of Bennett’s Yamina party — now under the leadership of Ayelet Shaked and not polling strongly enough to enter Knesset.

Arab voter turnout has been on the decline and is expected to slip even more this election, following a year in which voters were disillusioned with both the opposition’s Joint List and the coalition’s Islamist Arab Ra’am party. While the Joint List says it will refrain from joining a coalition until equality and progress toward Palestinian national aspirations are met, Ra’am flipped the script and joined a coalition in order to work toward those goals. But neither party showed substantial wins for the Arab street, and voter turnout is predicted to hover around 40%, a 25-point drop from 2020.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 30, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Lapid, in his Thursday address, focused on his coalition’s attempts to improve Arab society, including the creation of a five-year economic plan and investment in crime fighting.

Lapid said that there should be “civil equality” for the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arab, but that national equality is off the table.

“We can and should give them civil equality. On the other hand, we will not give them national equality because it is the only state that Jews have and we have no intention of giving up the Jewish identity of the State of Israel,” he said.

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