Interview'Winners get to form governments. Losers don't'

Lapid: If we beat Likud by 4, ‘no power on earth’ can stop us forming coalition

Blue and White No. 2 says if his centrist party tops Likud by decisive margin, Netanyahu’s allies will dump him: ‘They’re gonna say their farewells faster than anyone thinks’

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

If Blue and White beats Likud by four or more seats in Tuesday’s elections, “no power on earth” will stop it forming the next coalition, the centrist party’s No.2 Yair Lapid said Thursday.

Lapid was speaking shortly before Channel 12’s final pre-election poll gave Blue and White, headed by ex-IDF chief Benny Gantz, a 30-26 seat advantage over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, although a Kan Channel 11 poll forecast a 31-30 advantage to Likud.

Both polls indicated that a Netanyahu-led right-wing and religious bloc could build a 64-seat coalition, but Lapid was adamant that some parties that have made plain their preference for Likud over Blue and White could change their stance if his party tops Netanyahu’s by four or more seats.

“There have been 20 governments in Israel’s history. Nineteen of them were formed by the winner [of the most seats]. Only one was not and this case, with Tzipi Livni [at the head of Kadima in 2009] was a very extraordinary case,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview. “Basically if you win in a definitive way, you’re going to form the government. This is the way of politics. Can you imagine somebody with three indictments, who lost the election, being asked to form a government?” he said of Netanyahu. “It’s not gonna happen.”

“If we will win with a gap of four, five, six seats [over Likud], we will form the government. There’s no power on earth that will prevent us from doing so,” added Lapid.

Asked what role he expected President Reuven Rivlin to play in this — Rivlin will decide who to ask to form the government, based on recommendations from members of all parties that win Knesset seats — Lapid said, “I am expecting the president, as will the people of Israel, to listen to what the people have to say: If the people of Israel are going to tell me we voted for Blue and White, and Blue and White won…”

People walk by election campaign billboards showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, alongside Blue and White party leaders, from left to right, Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi, in Tel Aviv, April 3, 2019. Hebrew on billboards reads, left, “A strong Likud, a strong Israel,” and on the right, “Every vote counts, Blue and White victory.” (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Lapid also suggested that parties that have explicitly backed Netanyahu throughout the election campaign may change their tune were Blue and White to win decisively, and could opt to recommend Gantz for the premiership and seek to join a Gantz-led coalition.

“People say stuff in election times. And then, when governments are formed, people say different things… My advice is always to go back to basics: Winners get to form governments. Losers don’t,” he said.

Even the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which have ruled out a coalition with Blue and White, could realign themselves, Lapid claimed, if they were “facing the possibility of three or four years in opposition.”

The last time the Haredi parties were in the opposition was when Lapid’s Yesh Atid party joined a Netanyahu-led government in 2013. It’s unclear how the parties would work together now, with Lapid — who would replace Gantz as prime minister two and a half years after the election under a rotation deal signed between the two — seeking to advance a laundry list of policies vehemently opposed by the ultra-Orthodox.

“The military-draft bill. The cancellation of the mini-markets law. A civil arrangement for marriage. Public transportation on Saturday in non-religious areas. The Western Wall agreement. Math and English in every school in the country,” he ticked off as the religion and state issues he wants to push.

The Yesh Atid leader, who merged his party with Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem in an effort to oust Netanyahu, also predicted that Likud could quickly dump its leader if Blue and White defeats Likud decisively.

“They’re gonna say their farewells faster than anyone thinks,” he said. “There’s a huge underground bitterness within Likud. One of Bibi’s biggest flaws is that he doesn’t allow anyone to flourish next to him. He’s making sure people are held down to the ground. Nobody likes it. As long as he’s in power they’re going to be cautious about it. But you can hear the first voices [of dissent] coming out of Likud. And they talk to me. The minute he will lose some ground, there will be a reaction.”

But Lapid said that trying to predict exactly how the next Knesset might look was impossible given the four to five parties that may or may not pass the electoral threshold, in his estimation, with each able to swing the blocs by four seats in either direction.

He said polling done for the media, which often has a higher margin of error than the Knesset threshold of 3.25%, needed to be taken with a jaundiced eye, and asserted that pollsters were also overstating the strength of smaller parties.

“If they don’t, they get phone calls from (Kulanu leader Moshe) Kahlon, (Yisrael Beitenu head) Avigdor Liberman and other players, saying ‘if you twice publish a poll telling people I’m not passing the threshold, I will disappear because of you.’ So they’re rounding up, and they’re being cautious, and maybe they should be.”

Thursday’s polls, released after Lapid’s comments, predicted all of the current parties in the coalition passing the threshold and therefore boosting the right-wing bloc to 64 seats, enough to give Netanyahu the majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Lapid said there was “cognitive dissonance” between much of the media coverage of the campaign and his own personal experience.

“There’s a gap between what is happening to me and the media discourse that I am listening to. I am in the middle of the most optimistic, unbelievable, heartwarming experience of my life,” he said. “It’s a gathering of hundreds and thousands of people who say it is time to change the country, time to take a look at everything we think is important — health care, education, security and more than anything else, the kind of leadership that is necessary — unifying, optimistic leadership. I’m with a great group of people, who care. And all I hear from the media is, so, is this going right? And, did you hear the last piece of fake news that was thrown at you?”

When it was put to Lapid that Gantz had been facing a steep learning curve, and had not grasped quickly enough the dangers, for example, of remarks he made in private conversations becoming public, Lapid noted that Netanyahu “has the benefit of the use, and sometimes the cynical use, of all the resources of the country for his political benefit. And yet we are leading. And that’s because we are transferring this wind of change to the people of Israel. It became tangible to them.”

“We made the amorphous idea of the ability to change the country for the better tangible for the majority of Israel,” he said. “And the only thing we have to do is just go the extra yard — it’s not a mile — and we’re going to win this election. There is a sense of hope in this country and we brought it in. Therefore we must be doing something right.”

Benny Gantz during a Blue and White party event in Ashdod on March 30, 2019. (Flash90)

Nonetheless, he acknowledged, “the only way to look at how campaigns are managed is in retrospect. A very few days from now, you will either tell me that this was a genius campaign and it’s unbelievable that Bibi [Netanyahu], with all his experience, screwed up so badly. Or the other way round.”

Blue and White has repeatedly lashed Netanyahu over a series of criminal corruption charges he may face immediately after the elections, and more recently, over his alleged involvement in several illicit naval deals in which his close associates are also accused of bribery. Lapid, however, said that the party is offering not only a change in prime minister but also “a change in the government’s priorities.”

The party, for example, wants to invest an additional 12.5 billion shekels ($3.5 billion) into the health system within five years. The 2018 Health Ministry budget was ($10.5 billion). Perhaps making the job of forming a coalition even harder, Lapid said Blue and White would fund the additional health investment, and other budgetary increases for infrastructure and education, by eradicating deals made between parties during coalition negotiations that earmark funds for specific community needs.

Lapid said that Netanyahu, unable to respond to policy criticism and desperately trying to deflect from potential criminal charges, has resorted to “flat-out lying” in order to smear both Lapid and Gantz. The prime minister, in defending social media users who have spread “fake news” about his rivals, has also given a platform “to the filthiest language and subject matter and homophobia and racism.”

Blue and White on the other hand, Lapid said, “decided on one basic principle, Gantz and myself, that we are not going to lie. And we are not going to publish anything unless we are sure it is true. And we are not going to attack the prime minister’s family. We are not going to go below the belt in any way. Apparently the prime minister has no such rule.”

What about depicting Netanyahu as an American-trained fake who spent years enjoying the high-life in the United States while Gantz was bravely risking his life in the trenches with Israel’s soldiers? “Well, he was punching back,” Lapid said of the Blue and White leader’s second major political speech. “This guy was a warrior his whole life and he was taught and has also taught others that if someone is hitting you, you have to hit back. He went out there and told Netanyahu, ‘there is a limit to what I’m going to take without punching back, beware.’ And it had an impact. Netanyahu understands this kind of language. I didn’t say that we are running a campaign of nuns. But we have limits.”

The Blue and White campaign has been plagued by a series of scandals that it has rejected as politically motivated smear attempts. It has also seen potentially damaging leaks of conversations between Gantz and close associates, including a recording published last week in which the former IDF chief said of Lapid and the party’s other senior leadership that he’s “not sure about any of them.”

From left to right: Blue and White party leaders Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Gantz , Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi pose for a picture after announcing their new electoral alliance in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Lapid said Thursday that he “couldn’t care less” about those comments, dismissed reports of tension among the party’s four senior leaders — Gantz, Lapid, Ya’alon and fellow former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi — and vowed they would remain together whatever the results of Tuesday’s election.

“They are just great guys. I enjoy their company. I enjoy working with them,” he gushed, saying that they didn’t always agree on everything but their daily meetings were filled with a sense of both purpose and, perhaps surprisingly for some, humor. (“Bogie [Ya’alon] is a funny one. I know people wont believe me but he’s a funny guy, when he wants to be. He’s a serious funny guy. It’s always funnier when someone serious is making jokes.”)

One key disagreement — and one that could well arise if Blue and White were to lead the next government — could be over the nature of a possible peace agreement with the Palestinians. Though Gantz has stated his commitment to reaching such an agreement, Ya’alon opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state and has stated flatly that he would not support a two-state solution. Lapid, however, has previously called for “a demilitarized Palestinian state whose capital is Ramallah,”

The diplomatic program set out in the party’s manifesto includes support for a “united” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, continued Israeli control over the Jordan Valley, and retaining settlement blocs in the West Bank. But while it also states a willingness to enter negotiations with the Palestinians, such a platform would likely be rejected by the Palestinian Authority, which calls for a state based on the 1967 lines with a capital in East Jerusalem. Notably, the platform does not denote support for Palestinian statehood.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon looks over at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking with Finance Minister Yair Lapid during a plenum session in the Israeli parliament on June 05, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“Here’s what we’re saying,” Lapid explained in defense of both the platform and a notion of party unity over the issue, “We’re saying we are for separation from the Palestinians.”

“Now you are asking me five years from now. Three, four, five years time…” When he would be prime minister? Yes, when I am prime minister … what kind of political solution there could be on the other side? So, Bogie will tell you a ‘state minus’ and I will tell you a state. But this is a difference of opinion of an end result of a process we have not started. So ask me then,” Lapid said.

Should it win the election and form a government, Blue and White may need to decide on the issue earlier, as the Trump administration’s long-awaited peace plan is likely to be one of the first items of business facing the next prime minister.

Lapid said that the next government would have to “seriously consider a plan of a president that is one of the best, if not the best friend, Israel ever had in the White House.”

Lapid said he didn’t know what was in the Trump plan (“supposedly nobody really knows”), before adding that, “we have to remember that this president also has a tendency for surprises.”

“So,” concluded Lapid, “We have to wait to see what happens.”

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