Yair Lapid is not having the best of days. On Sunday night, for the first time in months, two opinion polls placed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party ahead of Benny Gantz and Lapid’s Blue and White, albeit without predicting any significant change in the deadlock between the rival right-Orthodox and center-left blocs.
With only a week to go before the elections, Lapid pauses in the middle of writing a text message and sighs that, on days like today, “everyone’s writing your obituary.”
Characteristically, he quickly rallies to declare that he still “truly believes” Blue and White will win the March 2 election. But there’s no doubting the extent of the challenge.
On Monday evening, Blue and White marked the first anniversary of its foundation — the merging of Lapid’s established Yesh Atid party with former Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s nascent Telem and ex-IDF chief Gantz’s new Israel Resilience Party into a partnership of substantial political diversity unified mostly in the cause of seeking to oust Netanyahu.
In these short 12 months, Blue and White has become the largest party in the Knesset (winning 33 seats to Likud’s 32 in September), and was central to denying Netanyahu enough seats last April and again in September to muster a parliamentary majority. Hence next Monday’s three-peat.
Part of its appeal has stemmed from the fact that Gantz, Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, who form the party’s leadership quartet with Lapid, are former IDF chiefs — able to challenge Netanyahu’s Mr. Security credentials. And yet, even as rockets from Gaza pound southern Israel, leaving Netanyahu potentially vulnerable to accusations that his Gaza policy is misguided, these latest polls suggest Blue and White is failing to make further inroads.
Indeed, the party, and Gantz in particular, has been on the defensive in recent days. Its core campaign focus was to contrast Netanyahu the indicted prime minister, whose trial for corruption is due to open at the Jerusalem District Court on March 17, with squeaky-clean Gantz.
In this interview, as in all of the Blue and White leadership’s media appearances in recent days, Lapid insists that Gantz is indeed integrity personified. But last week, the acting state attorney opened an investigation relating to the activities of Fifth Dimension, a now bankrupt tech company formerly chaired by Gantz that is suspected of misrepresenting itself when seeking a contract for a project with Israel Police. Gantz is not a suspect in the investigation, but the timing of the probe is a major irritant for Blue and White, and while pledging his faith in the law-enforcement establishment that Netanyahu has so frequently battered in the past two years, Gantz has alleged that a certain “political aroma” hangs over the freshly announced probe.
Asked about all this, Lapid protests what he regards as an attempt to create “an equation between a business transaction that didn’t work well” — the activities of Fifth Dimension — “and three indictments for real crimes” — against Netanyahu. With a rare dash of cynicism, he then adds that doubtless “free journalism will prevent the public from being misled in this way.”
The following is a lightly edited transcript of our interview, conducted on Monday morning in Tel Aviv.
The Times of Israel: So, not the best of days?
Yair Lapid: There were two polls published yesterday in which for the first time in a long time, Bibi had a lead of one seat. It didn’t change anything within the blocs. It just means he’s started siphoning votes [from other parties in his bloc] earlier than we did. It will balance out in the future. But it’s the day you have to gather everyone and say, Guys, remember this is a roller coaster. This is the nature of the game. We’ve been through more difficult times.
We are now a week before the election. And politics are on page five, after the coronavirus, the Gaza attacks and a few other domestic issues. Everybody will probably make up their minds in the last couple of days.
We are moving forward towards some sort of Israeli version of Republicans and Democrats. Two big parties. Nobody is going to have 61 [seats in the 120-member Knesset]. So the president will let whoever is the bigger party try and form a government. Hopefully we’re not moving into a fourth election.
I mean, there’s only one person who’s preventing us from having a unity government and it’s Bibi, and his indictment. So if people do not come to their senses and vote Blue and White [in sufficient numbers], we might be in a fourth election.
Has Avigdor Liberman [whose Yisrael Beytenu party holds the balance of power between the two blocs] changed his stance in the last few weeks? Is he still bent on a unity coalition?
I’m not a commentator on Liberman. So you will have to ask him. We have said many times that for us, Liberman and Likud are the two first phone calls we’re going to make in order to form a government. I always wanted a unity government and, you know, Likud wants a unity government. Bibi doesn’t want a unity government because of his legal issues. Bibi’s the only person who prevents us from having a unity government, which is what the country needs.
You’re talking about what’s on the front page. So the front page is full of Gaza, and yet people most battered from Gaza [in areas close to the border] are still overwhelmingly inclined to vote Likud.
Well, people who are under attack tend to be more cautious about change, because their experience is that every change is for the worse. We are trying to tell them, You’re wrong on this one, on the Gaza issue; you have to remember that the best three and a half years you had in the last decade and a half is the years Benny Gantz gave you [when he was chief of IDF staff]. And we can get this back and we can again make better use of it.
It is always hard to convince people to change their voting habits.
Tonight, we’re celebrating the first anniversary of Blue and White. This is a party that has been out there for a year, so it is a message of hope and change that we are bringing to the people. But it’s not that easy. The fact that we are the largest party in the Knesset is striking enough, but we have to do just a little better than we are now.
You’ve obviously not been helped by the timing of the announcement of a probe into Fifth Dimension.
Hasn’t it made Gantz vulnerable that he took the chairmanship — I assume the lucrative chairmanship — of a company that allegedly misrepresented itself when it was negotiating a contract with Israel Police? He’s allowed himself to be associated with something that’s allegedly somewhat problematic.
So here we are sitting here and creating an equation between a business transaction that didn’t work well and three indictments [against Netanyahu] for real crimes.
No, I’m not creating an equation. But it has enabled other people to try to suggest some kind of parallel.
Yes, and thank God for free journalism that will prevent the public from being misled in this way.
The only reason they opened an investigation now is because it had been announced that Benny Gantz is not being questioned for anything, because he has nothing to do with it. And the fact that Bibi and his gang of liars has jumped all over it doesn’t change the facts, if people still listen to facts. Actually, they made so much noise that nobody noticed the fact that, on another issue, they have announced that they are going to look into Bibi himself, specifically the stocks he had with his cousin, Nathan Milikowsky, which attaches him directly to the submarine scandal; the fact that the prime minister of Israel made millions.
Did I miss that?
Yes. In the same leak last week where they announced that Benny Gantz’s company, not himself, was going to be investigated, they announced that they are going to check into the shares the prime minister bought very, very cheaply and got unbelievable revenues for, in a company that is attached to ThyssenKrupp. (Blue and White has asked the attorney general to open such an investigation, and it has been reported that the state prosecution is poised to do so once the elections are over. — D.H.)
You said ‘Bibi and his gang of liars.’ So they extend now to the acting state attorney [Dan Eldad, who opened the Fifth Dimension investigation]?
No, no, no.
Dan Eldad is not one of the liars?
So what’s going on?
Well, there are two things. [Public Security Minister] Gilad Erdan and [Justice Minister Amir] Ohana openly tried to drag Benny Gantz into this quagmire using their political clout. When Benny Gantz talked about the “political aroma” [surrounding the opening of a probe and its pre-election timing], this is what he was talking about.
We are refusing to attack the legal system, which is under attack anyway. We’re not going to do what Bibi and his people do, which is attack the investigators because they don’t like the results. Let me remind you, the people they attack are [former police chief] Roni Alsheich, from Kiryat Arba, who Netanyahu himself appointed; [attorney general Avichai] Mandelblit, the son of a Likud activist, who he himself appointed, [former state attorney] Shai Nitzan, who he himself appointed. And apparently the judges who he himself appointed.
Everybody in his right mind looks at this and says, Okay, we might have criticism of Benny Gantz, but we know he is an honest broker, he’s an honest guy, a guy who’s dedicated his life [to Israel]. If he was thinking about money, he wouldn’t have spent 38 years in the army
So the fact that they are questioning the integrity of the legal system after 14 years that Bibi is prime minister is ridiculous, and I’m not going to do the same.
You didn’t really answer my first question: That Gantz, in taking that chairmanship, evidently made it easy for people to open a door a little bit and make allegations of corruption against him.
Ninety percent of businesses, especially digital businesses, do not succeed. That’s the nature of the game. And it’s OK.
Not the bankruptcy thing. The misrepresentation of the company when it was seeking a contract.
They are questioning some minor ranked people in the company. I have no idea about it. What I care about is whether or not Gantz is being questioned, and the answer is he’s not. And the reason I know is because the system said that we’ve looked into it, and we know he did nothing wrong.
Everybody in his right mind looks at this and says, Okay, we might have criticism of Benny Gantz, but we know he is an honest broker, he’s an honest guy, a guy who’s dedicated his life [to Israel]. If he was thinking about money, he wouldn’t have spent 38 years in the army.
How concerned are you that, if Netanyahu wins, he’ll change the balance between the judiciary and the executive and parliament? If he can get 61 of the 120 Knesset seats, they’ll all troop off together and rein in the power of the Supreme Court?
Israel will stop being a democracy and we will be an Erdogan-like country
Absolutely. He will have an immunity deal. He’ll institute the Supreme Court override, which is the end of the Supreme Court as we know it. He will have an Israeli version of the French bill, because the original French bill doesn’t allow the prime minister while active in office to commit crimes. So he’ll have his own tailor-made French bill.
He will have it all, and Israel will stop being a democracy and we will be an Erdogan-like country.
And yet the public has not abandoned Netanyahu. Why isn’t your party far ahead?
A, as I was saying, change is a difficult thing. People fear change. And sometimes they even prefer the bad things they do know to the good things they don’t know. And we are offering them the good things.
B, since we’re discussing a direct attack on Israeli democracy, we also have to remember that democracy — I’m not talking about the Greek ancient democracy, but the way we know it — is a new, fragile idea, that not everybody looks at as the natural course of things or the natural way of ruling.
It needs to be not only protected, but also explained constantly — the dos and don’ts, the pros and cons, the balance of power. The fact that rulers have more obligations, not less. It’s not an easy task.
You interact with the electorate, you’re out there all the time. What are people saying to you? Yeah, we think you guys are great, but…? Are there parts of the electorate that are simply lost to you?
No. You cannot be as big as we are if you’re not supported across the board. Ashkenazim, Sephardim, religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox, we have it all. It’s a big tent. We sometimes pay a price for the fact that it’s a big tent. We have different views. We have arguments, and arguments tend to leak. I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s part of the creation of a governing party. And we are, by nature, a governing body.
We insist on, you know, weird things like telling the truth and not smearing people using false allegations
What we are trying to do is not only to win an election, but to completely change the structure of Israeli politics.
It is quite amazing that we’re doing this well considering the fact that everybody who is in the business will tell you that the politics of fear is more efficient than the politics of change and hope. And if there’s one thing Bibi’s good at, it is manipulating fear and hate on his political behalf. We have banned ourselves from doing the same — meaning, we moved into the ring with shackles on our legs just by the fact that we insist on, you know, weird things like telling the truth and not smearing people using false allegations.
It’s sounds a little bit like you’re being very noble, but maybe it’s not going to work.
Here’s why I think it will work. It’s a blue ocean, right now. You know, Red Ocean, Blue Ocean — it’s a business theory saying if you are creating a new business, try to go to a blue ocean. A red ocean is an ocean filled with predators and sharks. A crowded area. Blue ocean is the ocean where you can create your own atmosphere.
So we [in Blue and White] are in a blue ocean — of being in politics, yet truthful and value-oriented and telling things the way we really see them, not manipulating people. I truly believe it’s going to work.
If you’re a student of political history, people here don’t like [president Barack] Obama, but remember what happened with him in 2008: He said, let’s have a different discourse. Let’s talk in a different language to the people.
Boris Johnson just did that in England. Boris is a shrewd politician, and he found a way to speak in the new vocabulary to constituencies that weren’t his.
So this is what we’re trying to do now. We are changing the vocabulary. And again, we are the largest party in Israel.
When we started, Bibi used to tell people in interviews that we’re going to collapse within days, that [Blue and White] is on the brink of falling apart. He’s not saying this anymore. There is a reason. He realizes we’re here to stay. And if we are here to stay then we are here for the win as well.
Anything that had Germany and Britain in the same camp was good; when that starts to fall apart, it’s not so good — that’s my take on the pros and cons of Brexit. And as for Boris Johnson: He wrote one op-ed that was, we should leave, and one op-ed that was, we should stay, and he chose to publish the one that was more expedient. You’re citing him as a role model when you’re a party of principles?
I use this as an example of the ability to speak a different language, to figure out a new way of doing things…
Emmanuel Macron is a great example: A new party, speaking of centrism as the only way of running a country in the 21st century. Clean. No political shackles. Convincing the French that they have the ability to take their fate into their own hands.
We’ve had three elections in a year. And with every election, the ability to seek to ensure that the truth gets out becomes more of a challenge, it seems. The capacity of people to distinguish between what’s real and what’s marginal and what’s true and what’s really baseless, I see that becoming more of a challenge.
This is why I use Macron as an example. I can use Angela Merkel as well, as somebody who speaks her mind, truthful. And a capable politician.
Let’s talk about these three elections. The April election was about corruption. The September election was about religion and state. These elections are about who the hell is going to run the country. Can somebody with three indictments, who’s been in power for 14 years and has a complete lack of new ideas, run a country as complicated as Israel? My answer is no.
We have a huge advantage over former [challenging] parties such as Labor, because we answer so definitively on the big question Israelis ask themselves in circumstances like this, which is about security. You cannot say of a party, three of whose four leaders are former IDF chiefs, that we will not deal with security, especially when the results Gantz and “Bogie” [Ya’alon] and Gabi [Ashkenazi] had in Gaza were much better than Bibi’s.
It’s about who’s going to run the country. Our version: A group of people who know how to work together, who feel like a team, who understand that friendship and the ability to cooperate are an advantage to a prime minister, not a disadvantage the way Bibi sees it… A team with a leader we can trust because he’s truthful, honest, and I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it is to me, a great guy. Even Bibi’s supporters will tell you that nobody has said about him, ever: a great guy.
Bibi is obviously not himself anymore. Something really wrong happened to him.
Where do you see that?
When I was serving in his government, he still cared to some extent about the good of the country. If he had to choose between his own good and the good of the country, he would go for the country. Not anymore. It’s all about him now. It’s all about his legal issues. He doesn’t seem to understand why he’s not given the privileges of royalty. He’s not, because this is not a monarchy. This is a democracy.
How do you feel about the Trump plan?
I think it’s great place to start a process. It is not perfect. It was not intended to be perfect, because there is no perfect solution. This is an original look — on economy, on the map, on what happened in the last two decades. It didn’t run away from anything that was too complicated. They were trying to dig into the real problems.
Do you think Israel can maintain all the settlements, including the 15 enclaves in the heart of what would be a Palestinian entity?
Israel should do its best to avoid taking people out of their homes. And if there is a plan that allows this, it’s a good idea.
What will happen eventually, after the completion of this, is to be determined by the people who live there: Whether or not they want to live in circumstances like this, it’s up to them. But Israel has to try and enable them to stay in their homes. We saw what happened after the disengagement [from Gaza]. We think everything that is unilateral is wrong. And we think Israel should do its best to avoid evacuating people if possible.
What of unilateralism the other way — Israel taking its 30 percent of West Bank territory right away or soon?
The Americans said you have to look at this plan as a whole. You cannot just take the pages you like because it’s election time and you need this as an election stunt. I think we should have sovereignty over way more than the Jordan Valley — over Ariel, Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim… — but as a result of a process that will help us separate from the Palestinians.
A negotiated process with the Palestinians?
Yes… The Americans were very clear [in opposing] the idea of unilateral steps, because it’s a killer for this plan itself… I’ve read the plan and I’ve spoken with them. And what I want to do is to give it as many chances as possible to make this into a negotiated process… The plan itself is good. It’s smart. It’s original, in a field where nobody showed any originality for years now.
Tell me about your thoughts on the [mainly Arab] Joint List. There are elements of that party that I’m sure are not anathema to you and there are elements that are… You’ve said you don’t want them in your coalition.
We want a unity government. At election time, what you do is you just push as hard as you can for the thing you want. And what we want is a unity government with Likud without Bibi.
But the Likud isn’t giving up on Bibi.
Well, let’s see what happens if he loses another election. And if we are the largest party, and the president says, I’m only going to give it to one party this time. One shot. Only one party is going to get the chance to form a coalition. He doesn’t have to let two parties have a try: Blue and White is going to try and form a government, and if it can’t we’re going to another election, to a fourth election. And in the meantime, Bibi’s trial already has begun. This changes things.
Why would the president only give a chance to one party to form a coalition?
If it’s really obvious that nobody is going to have a majority, why would he give two parties the chance? It’s within his remit to do that.
As for the Joint List…
We have been facing — talking about lies — a blunt lie by Bibi. He has been saying it, he put up a billboard saying, Blue and White is going to go into government with the Joint List. We’re not going to go into government with the Joint List. There will be no government with the Joint List.
I hope one day there will be a representation for the Israeli Arabs — who are 20 percent of the population, who I believe have real needs that must be taken care of — that we can put in an Israeli government. Right now. when you have people like [MK] Heba Yazbak within the Joint List, we cannot.
Bernie Sanders said yesterday that AIPAC provides a platform for bigots. He’s the leading Democratic presidential contender at the moment. What do you make of that? And what does that say about the Democratic Party?
I’m not going to say anything that will even sound like interfering in the American election or in American primaries.
I can speak about the Israeli side. On the Israeli side, we must do much, much better work in order to make Israel a bipartisan issue again. It is not. We have an ambassador in Washington who is not the ambassador to the United States, but he’s an ambassador to the Republican Party.
We have a prime minister who has placed all his chips on one side of the political realm. It’s a mistake. And this mistake is coming back at us. This is one of the things we want to change, and will change if we win the election.