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InterviewGulf deals are great... and we must talk to the Palestinians

Lapid: I must do better in making people see we’re the only alternative to Bibi

‘Betrayed’ by Gantz and facing a challenge inside his party, the opposition leader is nothing if not resilient, battling a PM he calls ‘the most divisive Jewish leader in history’

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).

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem at his office in the Knesset, Jerusalem, on September 14, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem at his office in the Knesset, Jerusalem, on September 14, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

It’s been a dispiriting few months for Yair Lapid, the Yesh Atid party head and leader of the opposition. After he put his established party machine at the disposal of Benny Gantz and shelved his own prime ministerial ambitions, their alliance came close in three elections to ousting Benjamin Netanyahu.

Close, but no Balfour Street cigar.

Gantz abandoned their partnership and, to Lapid’s horror, joined forces with the prime minister they had resolved and promised to oust. Today, Netanyahu is in Washington signing peace treaties, sustained in power by Gantz, while Lapid is facing a leadership challenge within his own party and watching another former ally, Naftali Bennett, rise in the polls and build a challenge to Netanyahu on the right.

Lapid is nothing if not resilient, however. In this interview, conducted Monday afternoon in his Knesset office, he urges Gantz to quit the government right now, deriding the notion that the Blue and White leader is protecting Israeli democracy. He shrugs off the challenge to his leadership of Yesh Atid. He details how Israel could be battling the pandemic more effectively. And he weighs in on the agreements negotiated under Netanyahu with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

But most of all, he signals robust opposition and an ongoing determination to oust a prime minister whom he calls the most divisive leader in Jewish history for millennia. “It’s almost biblical,” he says.

The Times of Israel: I haven’t spoken to you since everything went downhill with Benny Gantz. You had told me in a few interviews about your great friend Benny and that everything was just great about your alliance. And I’m sure you were telling the truth at the time.

Yair Lapid: I was, and this is why I was so disappointed and apologized to the Israeli people [when Gantz broke the alliance and joined the Netanyahu government]. But if anything, I understood his behavior more then than I do now.

At the time, I said okay, Bogey [Moshe Ya’alon] and myself are sitting there, telling Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi horrific stories about how it is to be in Netanyahu’s government. And they go and they meet him and he is so good at this. I mean, when he wants somebody, his ability to flirt is unbelievable. And they say, well, it cannot be [that’s he’s so awful].

Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Yair Lapid, left, share a laugh during a faction meeting at the Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

At the time I was very unhappy and I really apologized to the Israeli people for telling them that Benny and Gabi are the right people to lead the country because then came the betrayal — not [just] of me, but also of the voters. It’s a betrayal of the democratic idea. You understand that not every promise that has been made to you is going to be fulfilled. But there is a basic idea. You are either a socialist or a capitalist. You are the right wing or left wing. And in this country, you are either against Bibi or you’re for Bibi, because he became the focal point of our politics.

Somebody took [the support of anti-Netanyahu voters] and used it the other way around. It’s made people feel that the entire democratic idea is ridiculous. So it was a betrayal of this as well.

But again, I said to myself that [Gantz and Ashkenazi] are not very trained in politics. And they came from this very structured world of the army in which there’s a hierarchy, and Bibi [as prime minister] was above them on the hierarchy. So they were accustomed to think this way.

So I was angry. But in a way, it was also understandable.

But now?

Now they know! It’s been months. They are publicly bitter and angry [with Netanyahu]. He signed a deal with the Emirates, not just without consulting them, but without even telling them! He’s running the show in an insulting way.

And still they’re holding the government together for him. The only reason that Netanyahu is the prime minister of Israel right now is because Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi are enabling this.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

They should leave the government today? And then what happens?

Yes. There is a complicated but possible maneuver in which we go into the plenum and have a constructive vote of confidence and create a new government. They’d have to suffer the idea that I’d be the prime minister in such a scenario. But at least I’ll be honest with them.

How does that work?

On the same click, you withdraw the government, and bring in the new government. You need 60-plus votes. In one vote, you change that government. The next day, Netanyahu is out of Balfour, he is not the prime minister. So that’s a possibility. I don’t know if it’s a probability.

But that’s what you would like them to do?

Yes.

They would say, yes we’re being humiliated. He didn’t even take us to Washington. But we are preventing a worse collapse of Israeli democracy.

How exactly does this translate into the real world? The fact is that he’s still in power. We have a prime minister with three indictments, who has nothing but contempt for Israeli democracy and has failed miserably in handling the virus and the economy. He’s the most divisive leader in the history of the Jewish people. I’m telling you, it’s biblical… I don’t think there was anyone who used fear and hatred the way Netanyahu does. Not in the last 2,000 years anyway. And the fact is that they are enabling it, laundering it, making it look good.

They would say, I don’t know, they’re preventing the firing of the attorney general, the reining in of the Supreme Court, the aborting of his trial. Those are achievements, no?

They’re legitimizing something that is fundamentally wrong.

We have a prime minister who was standing on the courthouse steps, with half of the government, telling the people that they should not trust the Israeli courts, the attorney general, the police. It’s like he’s on a legal road rage, which is terrible. He is the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by Likud lawmakers, gives a televised statement before the start of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The prime minister is telling the people that he’s going to cancel the separation of powers in this country. That we’re not all equal before the law — I want to be saved from my own indictments. And also, I’m going to take you into an unnecessary lockdown when it’s convenient to me… If you compare the way this government is dealing with the virus and any other government I can think of, we’re doing much, much worse. And he’s telling people, I don’t care. And they [in Blue and White] are the ones who are letting him be this way.

Netanyahu is losing support in the polls. But not to you. The support is going to your former ally, Naftali Bennett.

Yeah, former and maybe future. My problem with Bennett: eventually he is going to give the votes to Bibi, because he always does.

We [in Yesh Atid] need to do a better job in gathering those voices.

The next election, probably in March, is going to restructure the Israeli political arena, because it’s not going to be about left and right, even though Bibi will try to make it about left and right. He’ll say: It’s us and them; we are the right, they are the left; hate them.

But he cannot do that as much as he did before, because this election is going to be about the crisis. This is going to be about the economy. This is going to be about unnecessary lockdowns. This is going to be about the miserable failure in handling the epidemic. And therefore, you’re going to have new alliances.

I mean, looking at the coronavirus, you can work with ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs, with right-wingers, with left-wingers, everyone. It’s just a different ballgame.

Yair Lapid (R) seen with Naftali Bennett during a plenum session in the Israeli parliament, March 2013 (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Now, I need to do a better job in making people understand that the only alternative there is, is Yesh Atid. Voting for Bennett is just voting for Bibi in another way. Voting for me, and for Yesh Atid-Telem, is a real alternative. I see no other alternative right now from the not-Bibi camp.

I didn’t come into politics to have a single slogan of: Just not Bibi. But this now is translating itself into very different things: Efficient government; 18 ministries instead of 36; being pragmatic, practical, almost businesslike when you come to government. This is about trust. Can you trust the people who are running the country? Can you trust the fact that they are there only for the good of the people, not for other hidden and not so hidden agendas? The next election is going to be about all this.

With the virus, specifically, what could and should be done better?

Israel is usually a unique creature. A Western country in the middle of the Middle East, a high-tech startup nation fighting fundamentalist Islamic groups and so on.

We are not unique when to comes to the epidemic. The virus is the same virus everywhere. The rules on how to run an economy during a crisis are the same since Keynes. So there’s only one variable — the ability of governments to deal with it.

On the health side, they introduced the “traffic light” system [for contagion centers], and abandoned it. They convinced [businesses] to have the “purple badge.” Now, apparently, they’ve abandoned it. They decided on night curfews. That lasted for three days. They didn’t create a PR body to explain the rules and restrictions to the people, and therefore nobody understands what is going on. They didn’t hire 5,000 people to research the epidemiological chains, to bring down the infection rate. They did nothing.

We need to coordinate the hospitals. One of the reasons given for going into lockdown, which is almost ridiculous, is they said the hospitals up north are packed, but then hospitals in the center said we are not packed. You need to move people for an hour and a half from one hospital to another? How complicated can this be?

On the economy, they did a world of damage. The model for unpaid leave is terrible. The German model is working: You pay those on paid leave via their employers. We have something close to a million unemployed, but factories and restaurants cannot get their own workers to work.

Social workers protest their working conditions, during the COID-19 crisis, in Tel Aviv on July 21, 2020. Sign reads ‘Disgrace.’ (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

We need to put a lot of money into four or five big national projects in order to accelerate the economy long-term — cutting-edge projects, meaning 5G, meaning fiber optic infrastructure. We went into this situation with nine percent of the workforce in high tech; let’s finish it with 20 percent. Let’s do vocational training.

Compensate small businesses in advance; don’t make them wait months until they get the money. But of course the government is a bureaucratic monster. Responsibility for job training is divided among four ministries — the PMO, finance, welfare and labor. When I was minister of finance, we built a plan for job training for the ultra-Orthodox within a month and a half, because it was so obvious that our ministry was in charge and was saying, let’s do this.

Let’s talk a little bit about the peace treaties. Annexation [of parts of the West Bank] is indefinitely suspended. We had a story this week saying the Emirates got a commitment from the US that Israel won’t unilaterally annex before 2024. That’s a big concession. Netanyahu has chosen peace treaties over annexation.

It’s a good choice to have an agreement with the Emirates and Bahrain. It’s a great choice not to annex: anything that is unilateral is just damaging.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer in Washington DC on September 14, a day before the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House (Avi Ohayon / GPO)

Whereas your perhaps future partner Bennett might make a different choice.

That’s one of the many reasons we’re not in the same party. We’re just buddies. I was always capable of being friendly with people I disagree with.

I support the fact that in any future agreement, Ariel and Gush Etzion and Ma’ale Adumim and the Jordan Valley are going to be part of Israel. They should be. This is basically the blocs that are already mentioned both in the Clinton parameters and in the Bush letter to Sharon.

On the other hand, not negotiating with the Palestinians is not an achievement. Negotiating with the Palestinians is an Israeli interest. We need to negotiate with the Palestinians under the two-state solution and separate from them on our terms. And this could have been the best time to do so.

It’s kind of difficult with Mr. Abbas. He’s cozying up to Hamas as opposed to saying, these guys in the UAE have staved off annexation for me — here I come.

It is kind of difficult. I agree. We are back to the old Abba Eban saying, that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It’s terrible. But it’s in Israel’s best interest to push as much as we can to negotiate now — telling them, listen, you have had the misconception that all you have to do is wait. That the Arab world is going to do the job for you. The international community, the Americans, the UN Security Council, somebody is going to push Israel’s buttons for you. This is not happening. And it’s not going to happen in the near future because the bigger threat is not Israel, it’s Iran or the axis of power between Iran and Turkey.

This combination of pictures taken on September 3, 2020 shows (L to R) representatives of Palestinian factions gathered at the Palestinian embassy in Lebanon’s capital Beirut attending by video conference talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (screen); while their counterparts in the West Bank’s Ramallah watch the speech of Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh as he speaks in Beirut during the same meeting (ANWAR AMRO and Alaa BADARNEH / various sources / AFP)

The world is losing interest in them. We need to come to them and say, two years from now, three years from now, five years from now, it’s going to be worse. Why don’t we talk now? We are the ones who should be proactive. We need to do so when it’s most convenient to us. And these are very convenient times for us.

If I was in the same place Netanyahu is now, I would have signed the exact same deals with the Emirates and Bahrain. And I’m congratulating him.

He’s been vindicated. It is possible to make progress [on peace in the region] without the Palestinians. But…

We need to move forward with the Palestinians.

Would you sit in a government with Gantz and Ashkenazi?

Yes. I will not sit in government under Netanyahu, period. I have no problem sitting with Gantz and Ashkenazi. One of the coalition demands is an hour behind closed doors in which I will tell them exactly what I think of what they did. (Laughs.) But what is more important to me is to get rid of somebody who has become a real threat not only to Israel’s democracy, but also to our way of living and to our ability to live as one people here.

And finally, you have a challenge to your leadership within your own party from Ofer Shelach, somebody who you are very close to. Is that a sign of a lack of faith in you? Did he think your strategy was wrong all along? Would he not have allied with Gantz, for example?

Journalist Ofer Shelach (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Ofer Shelach (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

I don’t know. Ofer is ambitious. He turned 60 this year and he decided it’s time for him to figure out whether or not he can run for office. We are not going to have open primaries because it’s an open door for corruption. But we’re going to have a convention next year, and Ofer is probably not going to be the only one who’s going to run against me for Yesh Atid leader.

And I’m going to beat them all by a vast majority. I’m sorry, it’s not a very modest thing to say, but I think I know Yesh Atid well enough to say this. But I welcome the challenge. It’s good for the juices in politics. The personal side of it was a bit disappointing to me. But that’s life.

But you’re used to it.

No, I’m actually not. I have good friends. And it’s a first for me, when someone…

I mean after Gantz…

Gantz was never my friend. I mean, I met him two years ago. I’ve known Ofer for 30-some years.

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