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Analysis

Lapid’s near-impossible task: Why victory may not be in the cards

The prime minister’s campaign is beset on all sides by political paradoxes. For a start, how does he grow his party without cannibalizing his allies?

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 4, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 4, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid is in a sense the tragic figure of this election. His task is an almost impossible one. At first glance, polls seem to consistently show the same basic deadlock of the past four elections with Benjamin Netanyahu no closer to victory. But scratch the surface and that apparent parity turns out to be a massive advantage for the right.

On the all-important question of turnout, as well as in the post-election coalition calculus, Lapid is at a desperate disadvantage.

It’s not that turnout is expected to be very high among supporters of Likud, even if Netanyahu has reason to hope that 18 months in the opposition has lit a fire under his base. Lapid’s problem lies mainly on his own side.

Put simply: About a third of his potential camp, some 18 seats (out of 60) in Meretz, Labor, Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al, are hovering within the margin of error from the 3.25% vote threshold. (Polling numbers are drawn from the average of major media polls tracked on TheMadad.com.) Even a slight drop in turnout would be enough to push one or more of these parties out of the Knesset. By the logic of Israel’s proportional representation system, when the parliament’s 120 seats are then redistributed according to the remaining votes, Netanyahu’s camp would then obtain the last two seats it needs for a victory.

No such danger looms for Netanyahu’s right-religious alliance, where the lowest-polling party, United Torah Judaism, is at a safe seven seats.

Ayman Odeh (left) and Ahmad Tibi of the Hadash and Ta’al factions respectively register their lists of candidates with the Central Elections Committee at the Knesset, on September 15, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lapid’s side is thus mortally threatened by the prospect of even a slight drop in turnout on the left or in the Arab street. Whole factions are at stake. And the best indicators suggest he should be very worried.

The Arab factions, with the arguable exception of Ra’am, cannot be said to belong to Lapid’s camp. Both Lapid and Hadash-Ta’al, the largest Arab-majority list, have said they won’t sit together in a coalition. But they are willing to cooperate on one question: Staving off a Netanyahu victory. So it matters to Lapid’s strategy that Arab turnout appears set to drop precipitously.

There’s a rule of thumb about Arab politics in Israel: A unified Arab ticket drives up turnout in the community (witness the elections of 2015, September 2019 and March 2020), whereas a divided field of competing parties depresses Arab turnout (the elections of April 2019 and March 2021).

The Arab factions are now more divided than at any point in the past decade. One party, the nationalist-secularist Balad, is set to vanish far below the 3.25% threshold. On Tuesday, a Channel 12 poll gave it 1.2% and a poll by the Kan public broadcaster gave it 2.0%; no poll by any pollster shows it entering the Knesset. The other Arab-majority parties are expected to pass the 3.25% cutoff, but not by much. Internal party polls of Arab voters consistently show widespread disillusion and a drop in turnout for those parties that might reach as low as 40%.

The leftist Labor and Meretz are better positioned at five seats apiece in most polls, but the margin is still small.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli visits the Jaffa market in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2021, three days before the general election. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Too much success

Yet Lapid’s problem goes deeper.

He’s run a successful campaign thus far, with his Yesh Atid party rising in the polls from the 22-23-seat mark last month to routinely winning 25 and above over the past week. But his success has come partly at the expense of Labor and Meretz. Polls that gave him 22 seats — for example, most of those by Kan and Channel 14 in August and September — usually gave Labor and Meretz a safe five or six seats each. But as Yesh Atid has risen, Labor and Meretz each fell to four.

The most recent polls are the best for Lapid, and therefore also the worst. A Channel 13 poll on Tuesday gave Lapid a whopping 27 seats, just four short of Likud’s 31. But Lapid’s success came at a cost: all four left-wing and Arab parties hovered at just four seats, a fraction of a percentage point above political oblivion.

It’s a bitter catch-22. Defeat lies at both ends. A poor campaign will fail to rally his electorate; a very good one risks cannibalizing his own camp.

The pitfalls of diversity

It’s no accident that Netanyahu’s camp is so much better organized into larger factions safe from the vote threshold. Netanyahu learned from his failures over the past four elections not to allow any rightist faction to fall below the threshold. He’s invested vast efforts in enticing even the smallest parties, including very radical ones, to unite into larger factions and thus preserve right-wing votes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center meets with leaders of his allied parties, then-housing minister Yaakov Litzman (L), United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni (2L), then-interior minister Aryeh Deri (R) along with then-Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, (2L) in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, May 6, 2021. (Likud party)

Across the aisle, Lapid doesn’t have that ability. His “camp” is a euphemism for a radically diverse panoply of often antagonistic factions. The political, cultural, ethnic and religious divides that separate the rightist Yisrael Beytenu from progressive Meretz or Islamist Ra’am from hawkish National Unity are not bridgeable by the carrot-and-stick cajoling — offering cabinet posts, for example — that Netanyahu used to secure a union of far-right factions Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit.

In this diversity lies the second bitter irony for Lapid. Even if his campaign proves extraordinarily successful at threading the needle described above, even if he manages to draw a high turnout for Yesh Atid without pushing any smaller faction below the threshold, he would only achieve the ability to deny Netanyahu a victory – not to actually form a government himself.

Parliamentary coalition-building has two stages. First you deny your opponent the possibility of forming a coalition. Then you cobble one together yourself.

This two-part path to victory shapes Israeli elections. Both the pro-Netanyahu camp and the anti-Netanyahu camp united into unexpectedly loyal alliances for the same basic reason: In unity they stand a better chance of denying the other side the first chance at forming a coalition.

The heads of the eight parties making up the new government meet in the Knesset on June 13, 2021. Left to right: Ra’am head Mansour Abbas, Labor chief Merav Michaeli, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina chief Naftali Bennett, New Hope head Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz. (Ariel Zandberg)

The stakes for those who cannot keep their allies from breaking ranks were clarified by Naftali Bennett last year when he left the rightist alliance to form a unity government with Lapid. His great “betrayal,” as Likud saw it, was not in breaking his promise to his voters that he wouldn’t form a government with Lapid. Likud itself has a long record of such broken promises, as do other factions. The betrayal was in Bennett’s turning his back on the right-wing solidarity Likud was trying to enforce, which had successfully denied the other side a win till that point.

Here, too, Lapid’s disadvantage is clear and acute.

If the polls prove right, if the pro-Netanyahu and pro-Lapid (or at least anti-Netanyahu) camps each have 60 seats, Netanyahu will be the only one of the two who can trust that his entire 60-seat alliance will be able to follow him into a coalition. He’ll need to pull just one more MK from the other side to secure an outright win.

Lapid, on the other hand, will need far more than that. Hadash is unwilling to play a part in Lapid’s strategy beyond denying Netanyahu the win. It won’t stick with him to build a coalition. To obtain the votes he’ll need for a majority, Lapid must pull away a significant number of lawmakers — probably at least six — from Netanyahu’s still-loyal alliance.

That’s a tall order. The mere perception that Lapid’s path to victory is more difficult will work against him. If some party in Lapid’s camp – National Unity perhaps? Or Ra’am? – or even just a single MK concludes that Netanyahu’s allies won’t cross over, they may prefer to switch sides themselves to avoid yet another election.

If the result on November 1 is indeed 60-60, Lapid himself may try, as Netanyahu did before him, to dissolve the Knesset and quickly call a sixth election. After all, if no side can form a coalition, it is Lapid who remains in the prime minister’s chair for the duration of yet another election cycle and beyond, until a new governing coalition is formed.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz at a state memorial ceremony for the fallen soldiers of the Yom Kippur War, at the military cemetery memorial hall on Mount Herzl, October 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

To campaign or not to campaign

All these challenges have shaped Yesh Atid’s campaign, or rather hindered it.

To deny Netanyahu an easy win, Lapid must try to prevent a collapse in turnout in an Arab electorate that doesn’t vote for him or listen to him, create a sense of urgency on the left without campaigning too far leftward or risking shedding his right-leaning voters, and do both without triggering a rallying of Netanyahu’s worried base on Election Day. He must deny Netanyahu a victory by margins high enough to reduce the chances of defection from his side and increase those chances from across the aisle.

And he must do it all with a campaign that never grows so attractive that it pushes fragile Meretz or Labor below the threshold, and so snatches ruin from the jaws of success.

That impossible task has left the famously energetic Yesh Atid party with a surprisingly lackluster campaign. Yesh Atid’s ground operation in past years was among the most energized and best organized on the political map. Not this time. There’s no clear messaging, no rallies on bridges over Israel’s highways or at the country’s major intersections. Campaign videos are muted. There’s a sense among the rank and file that Lapid is walking on eggshells.

Some commentators, such as Channel 12’s Daphna Liel, have taken note of the unusually quiet campaign and suggested Lapid may be struggling to balance campaigning with the demands of his first experience in the prime minister’s chair. He’s simply too busy.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid seen during an election campaign tour in Hod Hasharon, March 19, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

But Lapid has always been an avid and talented campaigner, and everything now depends on it. There’s something more to Lapid’s reticence than being overwhelmed by his new job. He’s being careful.

Arab turnout

Since he cannot affect how Arab factions behave, Yesh Atid launched a campaign of its own to the Arab electorate in late September, hoping to salvage what few Arab votes might be had for a centrist Jewish-majority party by focusing on tackling endemic violence and securing resources for Arab communities.

It seems like a Hail Mary effort, but there’s some data supporting the move.

A study (Hebrew link) commissioned by the Abraham Initiatives that checked Arab willingness to vote found a 12-point jump, from 54% to 66%, in the number who intend to vote “after they were exposed to the message, from a centrist leader, that boosts their perception of their ability to influence the election results and of the benefits of voting for the Arab community.”

In other words, when Arab Israelis are told that their vote matters, even if the message comes from Jewish politicians who do not share their politics, they are more likely to say they plan to vote. Lapid doesn’t have to be an Arab politician or feign profound understanding of the Arab community and its challenges to influence its voting patterns, the study suggests. He merely needs to tell Arab voters their votes matter, that they can influence the outcome of the race and that their concerns will still be heard after Election Day.

An Arab Israeli girl casts her mother’s ballot at a polling station in the northern Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm on March 17, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

In an October 3 video, he tried to do just that. The video is simple: A seated Lapid looks into the camera, with Arabic subtitles translating him as he speaks.

“After years of neglect, Israel’s Arab citizens deserve a government that works for them,” he says levelly.

There’s no sign of his trademark charisma here, no dramatic rhetoric or entertaining visuals. He’s speaking across a gap in trust and basic worldviews that renders such flourishes ineffective.

So he speaks plainly and briefly to issues that polls say are foremost on the Arab voter’s mind: “The fight against crime in Arab communities is today a central goal of the government. That’s true today; it’ll be even more true after the election. We will work harder than anyone here ever worked to invest in the personal safety of Israel’s citizens, with an emphasis on the Arab community… This government will deal with the core issues that are important to the Arab community: the education of your children, creating jobs, especially for young people, zoning for housing, integration into the public service. I will handle all these issues personally, and also as a goal of the state as a whole.”

It’s a message calculated precisely to the tightrope Lapid must walk: To bring out the Arab electorate without feeding Likud’s campaign that tries to paint Lapid as dependent on anti-Zionist factions.

World leader

Lapid has trodden an equally delicate path in a bid for center-right voters discomfited by Likud’s alliance with the far-right. Netanyahu is focused laser-like on bringing those voters back to his side, and therefore so is Lapid. To reach rightward without shedding support to his left, Lapid’s solution has been to focus on his advantage as an incumbent. He’s worked hard to cultivate an image of himself as a statesman, a visibly “prime ministerial” successor to the talented Netanyahu – as, in fact, a new, uncompromised version of Netanyahu.

One humorous Hebrew-language Twitter feed noticed the striking resemblances between media photos of Netanyahu and those of Lapid in recent weeks and published a thread of the parallel images.

Throughout August and September, Yesh Atid’s social media feeds were flush with photographs of Lapid visiting soldiers and military installations around the country. As Yesh Atid well knew, the photographs were in violation of campaign laws that prohibit the use of soldiers or the IDF in campaign propaganda. But the party only stopped the practice when the Central Elections Committee ordered it to do so and backed up the order with a steep fine.

Lapid’s September 22 speech to the United Nations General Assembly was another brick in this wall. It was carefully constructed to sound like Netanyahu. The English was practiced, the message was deliberately hawkish. Many commented on Lapid’s declaration that he favors a two-state solution, but his distinctly Netanyahu-esque comments on Iran were no less central to the message he was trying to convey from the GA plenum to the Israeli prime-time audience watching at home.

“The only way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” he told those Israeli viewers over the heads of world leaders, “is to put a credible military threat on the table. And then – and only then – to negotiate a longer and stronger deal with them… It needs to be made clear to Iran, that if it advances its nuclear program, the world will not respond with words, but with military force.”

These strident words were among the passages highlighted for journalists in the official transcript released by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Lapid’s message to Israelis is essentially this: I can match Netanyahu’s strengths, and I don’t come with his downsides.

Lapid now leads a campaign designed to sidestep the many traps that lie in his path, deliver the turnout he’ll need if he is to defeat Netanyahu and create the conditions for actually winning himself at the coalition negotiating table. This quiet, calculated campaign is a far cry from the energetic races he’s run in the past. Given the circumstances, it may well be the best option available to him.

And that fact alone suggests that this election, perhaps more than the last four, is Netanyahu’s to lose.

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