With a month to go until Israel’s repeat elections, opinion polls suggest the electorate could produce a repeat result, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again unable to form a majority right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition, any center-left-Arab grouping still further short of a majority, and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman again holding the balance of power.
Yair Lapid, number two on the opposition Blue and White party list, foresees a different scenario, however, in which a repeat of the post-April coalition-building deadlock ultimately produces a different outcome — the Likud party dumping its leader and forming a unity government with Blue and White, without Netanyahu.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, he claimed Likud, whose MKs unanimously supported Netanyahu’s resort to new elections when coalition talks failed at the end of May, will not tolerate a recurrence and are ready to abandon their leader if he cannot deliver a clear-cut victory.
In Lapid’s unsurprisingly Blue and White-tinted readout, several new factors could move the September 17 vote to Netanyahu’s detriment — among them, growing indications that “something is wrong” with the economy, as evidenced by the widening deficit; disaffection among some Likud voters with Netanyahu’s divisive electoral tactics and his efforts to secure immunity from prosecution in the corruption cases against him; and the question of turnout on election day.
While many analysts believe holding elections twice in five months will play into the hands of energetic campaigner Netanyahu, a master of turning out the vote and aided by traditional high turnout in the ultra-Orthodox sector, Lapid believes turnout for his party will be better this time than in April: “Being the optimist that I am, I think that our turnout is going to be much higher because the people feel there is a chance now,” he said.
The Times of Israel: Before we get to this election campaign, was there an opportunity missed in those seven weeks when Netanyahu was trying and failing to muster a majority after the April vote? Was there a chance to negotiate a coalition with Likud but without him, if you’d been smarter, if Blue and White had been wiser? Or was the move to new elections always unstoppable?
Yair Lapid: Nobody saw it coming until the very end, including the people in Likud. Even when Bibi started circling around, telling them, We’re going to go for [new elections], they thought that it was just a maneuver. A stunt, to put pressure on somebody. By the time they figured out that he really meant it, it was too late.
So whether or how we could have been more savvy…
It’s relevant for now as well, because if something similar happens [with deadlocked election results], do you believe that parts of Likud would break away from Netanyahu?
The minute this election is over, and especially if there’s not a clear winner, then they’re going to get even with him
Let me put it this way: Unlike then, we are already talking to everybody in Likud, who are outraged by three things: a) They realized too late that the only thing he is negotiating for [when he tries to build a coalition] is his immunity [from prosecution in the three corruption cases against him]. Not, for example, their seats. He was willing to sell all the important ministries to [potential coalition] partners without leaving anything for Likud people. So they’re upset about this; b) They’re upset about the election; and c) they’re extremely upset about this walk of shame that he forced them into — signing this North Korean-like vote of confidence. It’s not even a vote of confidence…
A loyalty pledge.
Yes. It’s humiliating. Some of them at least still have some pride in them. So nobody in his right mind will say anything before the elections. But the minute this election is over, and especially if there’s not a clear winner, then they’re going to get even with him.
But Netanyahu is still this incredible electoral asset. Likud is doing well in the polls.
I agree. But let me state what I thought would be obvious to everybody but evidently it’s not: This election is going to be all about turnout. Being the optimist that I am, I think that our turnout is going to be much higher because the people feel there is a chance now. In this election, we have a better chance than we did in the last election.
Bibi is always doing those horrible things, like saying the Arabs are coming [to vote in droves] with the buses of the left, knowing that he will have three or four years for people to forget. He doesn’t have that opportunity this time. He was going for this ‘give me immunity, save me from jail’ kind of coalition. And he told himself, who’s going to remember this in four years’ time? But they do remember now. And [voters] say, This is not what we voted for. This is not the reason we voted for him. They’re upset.
So, again, I think we have a better chance now than in the last election. Nobody gave us a chance in the last election, and we tied. And Liberman has changed the rules of the game, because now if we have one seat more than Bibi, we are going to go to the president [and have Benny Gantz given the task of building a coalition].
Explain to me what Liberman is up to, the way you understand it. He says he wants to impose a unity coalition. But let’s say there indeed has to be a unity coalition, and Likud and Blue and White agree on it, they wouldn’t necessarily need him.
It’s almost a national game now trying to figure out what Liberman is up to, because everybody is taking off the table the possibility that he is up to exactly what he is saying he’s up to: He is fed up with sitting in governments that put shackles on him in terms of the things that his constituency wants. He wants to be in a government that will allow civil marriage, transportation on Saturdays, and of course the [ultra-Orthodox] draft bill, which is the reason [we’re having new elections]. This is his raison d’être.
His constituency was narrowing. Now it’s growing because he is saying: This is what I want to do. This is what I am going to do. And whoever is not willing to do it for any reason, I’m just not going to sit with them.
He’s said: I’m not going to sit with [United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov] Litzman or [Yamina’s Bezalel] Smotrich because they won’t enable me to change the things I want to change. and I think it’s my last chance of changing things. And even if I have to leave the stage, I want to leave with this under my belt.
That’s what he is up to. Really tangible things, which I happen to agree with. So I’m happy. I don’t care when people tell me, You might be losing votes [to Liberman] over this — a) because Likud is going to lose votes and b) I came into politics because I wanted as many people as possible to support those liberal, free Israel, centrist goals. If somebody is now pushing forward the same ideas, I am a happy man.
Amir Peretz’s decision, Labor’s decision not to merge with Meretz and Barak in the Democratic Camp, could potentially remake the elections if Labor falls below the threshold.
I don’t know what to be worried about first. Them falling beneath the threshold or them joining a Netanyahu government. I sat in a government that Peretz joined after declaring he would never join a Bibi government. Orly Levy never had a problem being part of a Bibi government. I have a musical ear for people who are not speaking from the heart.
You don’t trust him not to join a Bibi-led government?
Nobody does. There’s a history there.
Why have you not made more of a fuss about Likud bringing cameras into polling stations in Arab areas? You want to avoid voter fraud, then let the authorities set up cameras. But this was allowed to happen, and Likud is budgeting double this time. Nobody seems to care.
To allow people to have cameras solely at Arab polling stations is of course outrageous
Well, no. We are part of the discussion. There’s a discussion with [elections committee head, Justice Hanan] Melcer. There’s a recommendation from the Attorney General’s Office [against allowing party observers to bring cameras into polling stations]. We have a position — that this cannot be initiated by a political party. Either the Central Elections Committee places cameras at polling stations nationwide — including Bnei Brak, including Kafr Kassem and including Jerusalem. Or not. To allow people to have cameras solely at Arab polling stations is of course outrageous and of course I oppose it as strongly as I can, as we have written to Justice Melcer.
What do you think of your candidate, Benny Gantz?
I like him a lot, which is a good start. The people who snipe from the balcony and say, Ah, they will never last, this is going to fall apart, don’t understand the relationship. The glue of Blue and White is the personal relations I have with Benny. I like him a lot and it seems that he likes me. Gabi [Ashkenazi] is a real friend. I get along with Bogie [Moshe Ya’alon] much better than people tend to think. All four of us have a similar sense of humor. I tend to believe this is important.
On top of this, I see Benny in so many places where he is not visible to the public eye. I was in the cabinet when he was commander-in-chief during wartime. He was the coolest guy in the room. I saw him through the establishment of Blue and White — it was a tough path, and he was the coolest guy in the room.
He’s not a natural politician. He’s not comfortable. You can see that.
Yeah, but [Yitzhak] Rabin wasn’t a natural politician either. Levi Eshkol was not a natural politician, and he won the Six Day War. I can give you 100 examples of this, all the way back to Moses, who wasn’t a great orator, or so I’ve read.
In a way, this is what the country needs right now: Somebody who’s not another drama queen. Somebody who’s capable of taking everybody into a room and saying, Listen guys, I understand you’re all full of emotions, but let’s calm things down, let’s think of the best course of action.
It may not always translate well to the camera, but it’s what the country really needs. I like him and I appreciate him and I think he’s going to be a very, very good prime minister — unlike Bibi, who used to be an okay prime minister and he’s now just a bad prime minister. It’s amazing to me that people don’t notice this. The myth has become so powerful that people don’t look at the facts.
If the deficit is one of the largest in history for no reason; if the Iranians are on the Syrian border; if the Democrats do not speak with us and the Europeans do not speak with us and in the UN we’re doing horribly; if we’re moving from one crisis to another in Gaza — maybe he’s not a good prime minister. Maybe the problem is we need a good prime minister.
If so, you should be way ahead in the polls. He’s been there for 10 years.
The incumbents always have the advantage.
After 10 years, even Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher lost power.
This is why I think after 10 years Bibi’s going to go home this time.
You mean, you think he won’t get a majority and his party will do to him what the Conservatives did to Thatcher and Labour did to Blair?
I’m somewhere in between thinking and knowing. They’ll get rid of him in five minutes. They are fed up with him. The country’s half fed up with him and half trying to figure out what’s going to come next.
Ehud Barak said this to me and he was right: This election is not a new game. It’s extra time, in soccer terms. Except for one thing: In April, we went to an election thinking or believing that the economy was doing very well. Right now, we know it isn’t. The data was hidden from us. It was released right after the election. If you have a deficit of NIS 53 billion ($14.8 billion), all attributed to bad management, you’re in trouble.
To me, there’s not only one interesting political date in September but two. One is of course the election on the 17th. The other is September 10, when everybody is going to get their credit card bills. They’re spending money they don’t have like crazy. They’re looking and they’re saying this is 20 percent more expensive than last year. Why? He tells us the economy is doing wonderfully. It cannot be. They understand something is wrong with the economy. This is going to have an effect.
Let’s turn to immunity for the prime minister. The delay from April to September is a big problem for him. He would have hoped by now to be further along that process of gaining immunity. Does he still have an escape route like that?
[Attorney General] Mandelblit was very clear, and rightly so: He’s not going to postpone the hearing [for Netanyahu] even if it’s in the midst of coalition negotiations. So, yes, there is a possibility, a probability, that he missed his moment. All those people who were counting on him to perform the legal revolution they were hoping for [constraining the authority of the Supreme Court] are going to be amazed at how fast he is going to [abandon that issue, when such a reform can’t benefit him personally].
On top of this, I want to remind you that the submarine story is not gone. And this one scares Bibi the most. Rightly so. This is not something the people of Israel are going to forgive. Their judgment of him is going to be as harsh on the public side as on the criminal. The submarine story is going to come back.
We had a story a few days ago that Netanyahu wants Trump to issue some kind of declaration ahead of the elections in support of Israel annexing the settlements. What do you think of that?
Without getting into details, I really hope the American administration is not going to interfere with the Israeli election. It’s our democratic process and sacred to us, the way their democratic process is sacred to them.
I really hope the American administration is not going to interfere with the Israeli election
What do I think of annexing the West Bank? I think it’s a horrible idea that will be the end of Israel as a Jewish state…
You’re talking about annexing all of the West Bank. Netanyahu is not talking about that. He’s reportedly trying to get a public declaration by Trump supporting, in principle, the annexation of individual settlements.
Annexing the settlements is irresponsible. Nobody knows this better than Bibi
Again, if you’re doing things unilaterally, this is the cancellation of all future abilities to separate from the Palestinians which I think is crucial. It brings closer this moment we’re trying to avoid, in which the Palestinians tell us, ‘Okay, we realize there’s not going to be a Palestinian state ever. We want the vote.’ Say yes, you’re not a Jewish state anymore. Say no, you’re not a democracy anymore.
What we’re trying to do, as a country, before signing any agreement, is to postpone this moment as much as we can. [Annexing the settlements] would immediately make this happen. It’s irresponsible. Nobody knows this better than Bibi. Nobody did more than Bibi to make sure this will never happen. If he’s doing that, it’s a political stunt for the election. It would give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘opening a Pandora’s box.’