Two years ago, ex-TV news anchor Yair Lapid came from nowhere to emerge as the hit of the elections, leading his centrist Yesh Atid party to 19 seats and becoming a key member of the Netanyahu coalition. Then, three months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Lapid as finance minister and set in motion the process that led to next Tuesday’s premature return to the polls.
This time, as last time, Yesh Atid is polling at around 12 seats, but the party is optimistic that it will again prove the surveys have underestimated its strength. This time, as last time, Lapid and his colleagues have been campaigning hard and wide across the country. This time, unlike last time, Lapid is playing down his own prime ministerial ambitions.
In an interview with The Times of Israel on Sunday, conducted at an outdoor cafe in Tel Aviv against a background of children first playing, then crying, that forced us further and further away from a playground area, Lapid answered questions on domestic and diplomatic issues, on the inner workings of the Netanyahu government, financial corruption, European anti-Semitism and more. He cheerfully obliged when we were politely interrupted for a couple of photo requests. He made sure a potential voter knew the details of an upcoming party event in Tel Aviv.
We spoke English: Always pretty good, Lapid’s is now excellent — possibly a good fit for a job as foreign minister? — and his responses included quotes from the Bible, Orwell, Clinton and Mario Cuomo. He was responsibly discreet on the content of meetings of the war-stewarding Israeli security cabinet, wary about predicting the elections, and reluctant to specify who he’ll recommend as prime minister to President Rivlin on March 18, but open and easygoing about pretty much everything else. That included the casual acknowledgment that had he and Moshe Kahlon merged to form a united centrist bloc, they might have won these elections. But then Lapid, 51, says he’s “a very patient man.”
The Times of Israel: I’ve been intrigued by your half-comments in the past that, in the security cabinet, behind closed doors, there was a bit of panic in the prime minister’s behavior, and that you did not emerge from the war last summer, for example, confident in his leadership. I find that worrying.
Yair Lapid: I need to preserve my reputation of being the only minister who didn’t leak from the security cabinet meetings. It’s true that I’ve said that I left the summer events less reassured in his leadership abilities, but that is as far as I’m willing to go.
I find the whole discourse surrounding the summer events a bit disturbing. Even in the last few days, there arose this hot argument between [Economy Minister Naftali] Bennett and [Defense Minister Moshe] Ya’alon about the tunnels. More than 70 people died, including 67 soldiers, who you were in charge of. The least you can do is be respectful enough to have this argument behind closed doors, even if you could make political gain from it.
But what could have been done differently? Could other leaders have avoided this conflict? Could any of them have run it better?
I won’t comment on what happened during the events, but I will comment on what happened just after. The fact that we didn’t emerge from Operation Protective Edge with an immediate policy — the fact that we were not part of the [post-war] donors’ conference in Cairo, the fact that we avoided any kind of dialogue with the Palestinian Authority that would include the rehabilitation, conditioned on the demilitarization, of Gaza, is irresponsible at best and political cynicism at worst. This was a classic case of Netanyahu being afraid of Bennett, Bennett being afraid of Uri Ariel and Uri Ariel being afraid of three rabbis in Samaria. And here we are, an entire country — and think about those people who live around the Gaza Strip, think of people like Haim Yellin, the head of the Eshkol Regional Council, who is now with Yesh Atid… Because of these three rabbis that Uri Ariel is afraid of, nobody is doing anything.
How could the aftermath of the war have been different?
There was a window of opportunity — in two areas, one of which everybody knows about, the other is less known. The first is that there’s a coalition of more moderate Arab countries that are seeking some kind of cooperation with us because we have a mutual enemy which is radical Islam, and Hamas is part of this axis of evil. [Egypt’s President] El-Sissi has declared Hamas a terrorist organization, including the political organization. So that’s one side of it. The other side of it is that when the donors’ conference was established, they named Norway to chair it because Norway at the time was a very anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian state. But in the interim, there was a change of government in Norway. Norway now has a center-right government, which is very pro-Israel. Their foreign minister Børge Brende is a personal friend and a great guy. We didn’t even ask to attend [the conference]. They just said something vague about the fact that the Egyptians [were] against [our being there]. If we had been there, saying this is really important to us, and that we had both the will and the ability to help the Palestinian Authority…
‘We lost more points than we gained because of Netanyahu’s very good, very professional speech to Congress’
What was Netanyahu’s problem? If you want to [demilitarize and rehabilitate Gaza], you have to do it through the Palestinian Authority. He didn’t want to. Apparently he already knew he was going to elections and he didn’t want to appear like somebody who is cooperating with the Palestinian Authority. And this is why we missed the opportunity to at least put on the table the demilitarization of Gaza. I wanted to say it’s a fine example, but it’s actually a sad example, of how politics comes before the national interest. It’s not the only example I have of this. The only question is how much time you have.
Well, talk to me about that in the context of Iran? He’s right about Iran, isn’t he? It is a terrible deal?
Let’s start with the compliment. For more than a decade, Netanyahu did a very good job of putting the Iranian issue on the international table. He was dedicated, and his propaganda abilities are well-known. But he dropped the ball this time. Because if it is a terrible agreement — I’m not sure we know enough; among other things, we’re not in the loop — but if everything they say about the agreement is true, then you have to position yourself in the right place in which you have an ability to influence the agreement. Netanyahu was right to say to Congress [last week] that a good deal is better than a bad deal. But [to get a good deal] you have to have influence.
‘I have lost hope in the bilateral course with the Palestinians’
By the way, he’s pushed the issue of how many centrifuges they have. I think the main thing should be the kind of supervision, and what are the red lines for the supervision in an agreement. Why? Because this will enable us to concentrate our intelligence efforts to bring proof of any misconduct by Iran.
As an Israeli, I could identify with every word of the speech [to Congress]. I couldn’t identify with the fact that the speech was made and the timing of the speech and the way it was arranged. Because of it, we don’t have the Kirk-Menendez [sanctions] bill on the table. Because of it, we’ve lost almost all hope of getting the necessary two thirds of Congress that we needed to avoid a presidential veto. We lost more points than we gained because of this very good, very professional speech. We could have gained all the points necessary if he’d given the speech two weeks after the elections here, and had the necessary politeness of calling the president and saying, ‘I was invited to speak in Congress. Do you mind?’ It’s the famous road to hell.
Paved with good intentions?
Hmmm, maybe not. I’m withdrawing the metaphor.
Coming back to the Palestinians, is there any mileage in dealing directly with Mahmoud Abbas, or does any progress hinge on the wider Arab context?
I have lost hope in the bilateral course. In the last two years, I was not only part of the security cabinet, but I was also part of the negotiating team — including Tzipi [Livni], [Yesh Atid’s ex-Shin Bet chief] Yaacov Peri, and the prime minister represented by [Yitzhak] Molcho.
‘What threatens the existence of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, is the loony idea of trying to digest 3.5 million Palestinians’
There’s this leftist theory saying the deal is easy: All we have to do is go into the room with Abbas and Saeb Erekat. Close the door. We know the framework: something in Jerusalem; something about the right of return, maybe symbolic, maybe a bit more than symbolic; ’67 borders, and this is it and we sign the papers. Well, this is not working, and hasn’t been working for a long time now, and is not going to work. Abbas is 80 years old. And even when you’re 80 years old, knowing that you will be assassinated five minutes after the signing is not a very big incentive to sign. So you have to find a different course.
The right-wing way is even worse, saying even if we can make a deal, we shouldn’t make a deal because of the political price, because we don’t know how to evacuate settlers and here we go again: Netanyahu afraid of Bennett, Bennett afraid of Uri Ariel, Uri Ariel afraid of three rabbis in Samaria.
You don’t take the view that if we relinquish territory, really bad people will kick out relatively moderate people and then we’ll have Hamas on the West Bank border?
Well, we have Hamas in Gaza. It doesn’t threaten the existence of Israel. What threatens the existence of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, is the loony idea of trying to digest 3.5 million Palestinians and staying a Jewish, democratic state. This cannot be done. This leads in the midterm — they used to say the longterm, but now it’s the midterm — not only to complete global isolation, but also to a binational state. And you know what? My father didn’t come here from the ghetto on a ship in order to live in a binational state.
Nonetheless, what of the argument that Gaza showed us, that if you pull out of adjacent territory, Islamic extremists take over and that paralyzes the country?
Well, that’s why I’m against anything that’s unilateral.
But even if we do it by agreement, doesn’t Hamas oust Abbas fairly easily?
Except that we’re there.
Which is why in whatever agreement is to be signed, security measures are the main thing for us. This is not peace I”m talking about. Peace we can start talking about within ten years. I’m never giving up on the hope of peace. Right now there’s no peace on the table. Only an agreement. On their side, what they want is a state. I’m willing to give them one. On our side, what we want is security measures and we need to make them sign on to the security measures we want. And the ones who are capable of making them sign are the moderate Arab countries, effectively the Arab League. We should go to the Arab League. The Arab League is gathering later in March in Sharm-e-Sheikh. General Sissi is leading them for the first time. In normal circumstances, we would be there, starting negotiations with them. On a regional basis, but on the Palestinian problem. They can make the Palestinians sign. The Palestinians cannot sign by themselves.
‘When Shimon Peres left office, everybody said, These are such big shoes. Who would ever fill them? And then Ruby Rivlin becomes president, and three weeks into his presidency, you say, Yeah, he’s a good president. He’s different, but he’s good’
You remember in 1994 the ceremony in Cairo, when Arafat refused to sign and Mubarak said, sign here you dog? El-Sissi is not so different from Mubarak in this sense, and we need somebody like this. If you take the coalition of the Egyptians with El-Sissi, and the Saudis with people like Turki bin Faisal who are capable of pushing positive ideas, the Emirates and Jordan, of course, there’s a whole coalition. They look at us now, not as a problem, but as an opportunity. We have the technological intelligence, we have the experience of fighting terrorism, we have the ability of creating coalitions with the West.
Everyone talks about this. You have concrete reasons to believe it?
The most I can say on the record here is that there have been feelers in the last few years, overtures. What people don’t remember is that the Palestinian Authority and the future Palestinian state, hopefully not forever but certainly for the next few years, is totally dependent on outside financial support.
And therefore this Arab coalition has leverage.
We should probably talk about the elections. You go to America and it’s two terms for the president and that’s it. Not the case here. Do you think we Israelis have become so familiar with Netanyahu that we’ve become a little scared to try anyone else?
‘Netanyahu likes being prime minister. I just don’t know why. Because he doesn’t do anything’
Yes, in a way. Of course, this is one of these bogus things. I’ll give you an example. When Shimon Peres left office [as president last year], everybody said, These are such big shoes. Who would ever fill them? And Shimon Peres is the elder statesman of the world, not just Israel. I mean after Nelson Mandela died, the world was left with Shimon Peres as an old man to look up to. And then Ruby Rivlin becomes president, and three weeks into his presidency, you say, Yeah, he’s a good president. He’s different, but he’s good.
So it’s the same. Three weeks into somebody else’s prime ministership, you will not remember this sense that no one can replace Netanyahu. Netanyahu is not a very good prime minster. He did very little in the two years I was in his government. He doesn’t care, which annoys me. He likes being prime minister. I just don’t know why. Because he doesn’t do anything. So he’s more than replaceable. And yes, Israelis got used to him, but they’ll get used to somebody else very quickly, because whatever comes is going to be better.
How do you see the vote playing out on March 17?
I have no idea.
That’s very humble compared to last time.
Yes, maybe we have learned some lessons there. I’m not a political commentator anymore. Now it’s your job.
Yeah, well I don’t know either.
It’s strange: when the elections were declared, I was the only one saying he’s not going to be prime minister and everybody said, no, it’s a done deal. Now we are nine days before the election and nobody knows…
It’s become more uncertain?
Yes. If you look at the numbers, he’s probably going to win again, but what kind of coalition is he going to have? With whom? What’s the political arena going to look like? Is the Arab party becoming a prominent player? Will we have Kahane people in the Knesset again? Is Meretz going to exist? It’s interesting to watch and there’s no way of knowing. So I’m going to do my thing, which is work hard and fight for every vote.
Did you want to merge with Kulanu leader Kahlon?
No, I had a very good poll saying if we run together we might win this. So I called Kahlon — we’re on good terms and we will be on good terms; right now he’s attacking me because he thinks you earn votes this way; you don’t. I said you have to come and see something and he came, we had coffee, and I showed it to him. But it never got really… it wasn’t a practical meeting.
But wouldn’t you have potentially won the elections?
So why didn’t you push it?
The feeling was that there was nowhere to go with this. People are not only afraid of change. They’re also usually very late in acknowledging change. Bill Clinton said once, everybody wants change, but nobody wants to be changed. This arena of right and left is gone. There are no longer two blocs in Israel. There are three blocs. There’s right, left and center, and the majority of Israelis are in the center. I’m a very patient man. I have many faults and very few qualities, but one of the qualities I have is patience. And I understand that this is a cultural shift and a cultural change takes time.
But people are starting to understand that this is not a two bloc system anymore. It’s a three bloc system now and a majority of Israelis will vote for a big centrist party. I thought of creating this bloc, but it didn’t work out. So eventually we will have to make sure that Yesh Atid by itself is creating this bloc.
Is it possible nonetheless that you’ll emerge as prime minister?
I’ll do whatever the people of Israel want me to do. This is not about me. Yesterday I was in Beersheba and I saw all the billboards. It’s ‘Liberman for defense,’ ‘Kahlon for finance minister,’ and I see a billboard for Moshe Peretz. And I’m driving for two blocks, trying to figure out which party is Moshe Peretz. And then I realize that Moshe Peretz is a singer and he has a gig in Beersheba.
Why am I telling you all this? Because people are so preoccupied with themselves, with what position they’re going to have. I’m not. I emerged from being a political nobody to becoming minister of finance at the head of a big party and I’m going to be whatever people want me to be, to work for them. And this is not just a saying that was dictated by the PR people. This is what I truly believe.
Have you decided who you will recommend to the president as prime minister?
No, we’ll see what happens. Anything I would say now is premature. Worse than that, it’s a game.
It would be reasonable to think you’d say anyone but Netanyahu, having been there for two years and feeling that he was not doing a good job.
But what happens if a day after the elections they announce a unity government with Labor? What happens if… what do I know?
You don’t think he’s so dangerous for Israel that you cannot imagine recommending him?
I’m saying, whatever questions you have for March 18, ask me on March 18.
I’m very struck by your falling out with Bennett. You insisted on joining the coalition together last time.
This is historically untrue. One day after the last elections, I went over to [then Labor leader] Shelly Yachimovich’s house and I did my best to convince her — I wasn’t good enough — I said, let’s create the Likud, Yesh Atid, Labor government. It will be a dream government. We can achieve peace, we can do great things in economics. They refused. I’m sure they had their reasons, but this was my first choice. When this didn’t happen, I needed to create a different coalition and I wanted to pass legislation on the equality of the burden, which is one of the most important principles of Yesh Atid. So Bennett was the only choice we had. And this is how the ‘brotherhood’ was invented. Everything else is story-telling.
It worked for a while. Look at what we achieved: We passed [legislation on] the equality of burden; we put math and English into the ultra-Orthodox schools; we reduced governments to 18 ministers; we cancelled ministers-without-portfolio; we created a national program to help Holocaust survivors. We did a lot in this year and eight months. And we did all of this while rehabilitating the Israeli economy which had been almost destroyed by the previous Netanyahu government. When I came into office, I found a 40 billion budgetary hole, a deficit running to 5.5 percent and unemployment was growing., We had to fix all that. So we did a lot. But at one point something happened within his party, which I didn’t exactly follow, but they became more religious and more right-wing, for internal reasons.
Wasn’t Bennett always extremely right-wing?
He’s the least extreme part of his party. He’s the most moderate. It used to be Uri Orbach. Now it’s him. And yes, he’s an extremist.
The ultra-Orthodox draft law that you passed. Is it working?
Yes. The number of Haredi youngsters joining the army rose 39 percent, but the most significant number is the rise of 300 percent in young Haredim joining the workforce.
Why have you championed the middle class as opposed to the poor? Your [emblematic “average Israeli”] Ricky Cohen was middle class.
We do champion the poor. We’ve just stated the obvious: in order to help the poor, you need resources, and the resources to help the poor are created by a strong middle class. We have these sessions in my party, these old-fashioned things where we get together and put on the table one ideological issue and discuss it until flames are coming out of every eye. And we were discussing this and I said, When you say you have to help the poor, this is not being social, this is being empathic and there’s a difference. You want to have real social influence? Show us where to get the money for the poor.
‘If we want to keep the blocs, then we have to understand that we will eventually have to give up on the isolated settlements’
If you look at the 2015 budget that passed through government [but got stalled by the elections], there was, for example, a plan there to lift 190,000 poor, elderly people — people you see going through trash looking for food — above the poverty line. In order to do this, you need a strong economy, and a strong economy is created by a strong middle class. I’m all for taking money from the tycoons, but still, real money is the Israeli middle class. We’re here for the middle class and the poor.
I interviewed Stav Shaffir a few weeks ago and she spoke about corruption in budget allocations and inadequate controls on the transfer of funds within the discretionary budget. She said she was in touch with you and you could have stopped some of it, but you blew her off.
Things happen that require the reallocation of budgets. There are campaigns like Protective Edge. Bridges collapse, roads need fixing…
That’s not what she’s saying. She’s saying that they approve money for a particular purpose in the Knesset Finance Committee and then get called in for emergency meetings, where they’re not given enough information, and it all ends up in the wrong places. Hence, for instance, the current corruption scandal surrounding Yisrael Beytenu. Your Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman gave me fewer specifics, but also complained about this process: We don’t know what we’re voting for.
So this is why we declared that we’ll pass a bill providing transparency in the budget. What’s the saying? Sunlight is the best disinfectant? It’s okay for the opposition to oppose things. It’s their job. And it’s the duty of government to govern. I think Mario Cuomo said, campaigning is poetry and governing is prose. We’re in a campaign now, so everything is poetry. We governed and that was prose.
If you ran the world would you freeze settlements? Or would you freeze settlements outside the blocs?
Here is where it’s obvious to me why we need to have not only right and left, but also center. There is an unholy alliance between the Israeli left and the Israeli right about the settlements: Neither the left nor the right wants to distinguish or differentiate between the isolated settlements and the blocs. Why? Because the left wants to give everything back, and the right doesn’t want to give anything back. I’m saying they’re not the same. Ariel and Yitzhar are not the same. Itamar and Gush Etzion are not the same. Tapuah and Maale Adumim are not the same. And if we want to keep the blocs, then we have to understand that we will eventually have to give up on the isolated settlements.
And what would you do before a deal?
I’m against anything that’s unilateral. And as long as they live there, of course, [the residents] deserve Israeli government protection. I come from a home of what used to be called the national camp, but yes, in order to sustain ourselves as a Jewish state, it’s painful, but yes we have to leave these places. It’s going to be horrible. It’s not going to [merely] change the political atmosphere. It’s going to change you and me as people. It’s going to change our views about democracy, brotherhood, friendship. The relationship between citizen and state, everything. It’s going to be the most painful wound, and I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t so necessary, but it is necessary.
Finally, I grew up in London and there was always an undertone of anti-Semitism. Now, in parts of Europe, it’s an overtone. There were two very interesting speeches at the funerals of the four victims of the Paris kosher deli terror attack: Netanyahu saying to Europe’s Jews that you have to flee to Israel, and Rivlin saying European governments have to ensure that it’s safe there for Jews. What’s your thinking?
I want every Jew in the world to come to Israel, because this is the home state of every Jew in the world. But I don’t want them to have to flee, to have to come here because they’re afraid. If they live in Paris, they need to be protected in Paris.
[Ariel] Sharon used to say, Israel is the capital of the Jewish world. We have an obligation to Jews who are in distress. When there is hunger and massacre in Ethiopia, yes, we expect Israel to send airplanes to bring them home. But here is the flaw in what Netanyahu says: He said, there was a terror attack on a supermarket in Paris so the Jews in Paris should come to Israel. Let’s say they come to Israel and they live in Netanya and there’s a terror attack in a supermarket in Netanya. Should they go back? It sounds fantastic in his political backyard, but it doesn’t make sense to Jews around the world.