After bursting onto the political scene with a surprisingly strong showing in Israel’s 2013 election, Yair Lapid said he was bound for the prime minister’s office. Five years later, after two years in government and nearly four in the opposition, the Yesh Atid chairman on Tuesday launched his party’s latest election campaign, which he promised would finally take him there.
Packed into the emblematically named “Miracle Hall” in the central Israeli town of Rishon Lezion, a stronghold for the centrist party, Lapid told exuberant party activists that after the long wait, “This is our time. I am running to be prime minister of Israel.”
After failing to build on his first election success (19 seats) with a relatively poor outcome in the 2015 ballot (11 seats), Lapid said Tuesday that the upcoming April vote would be different — if not because of his own party or achievements, then because the alternative is too “dangerous.”
“We’re here to win. There is too much at stake,” he said to the cheers of the some 450 people in the hall that felt — perhaps purposefully — too small and overcrowded. (An additional 200 people had to wait outside in the rain, a party spokesman said.)
“We will win because most of the citizens of Israel don’t want a prime minister who is only interested in his own indictments,” he added emphatically.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing possible bribery charges in three separate cases, has accused police, the media, and the political left of pushing a conspiracy against him. On Monday night, he launched a fresh attack on law enforcement officials, charging in a live televised broadcast that investigators had mishandled the cases against him.
Lapid said that the prime minister’s statement was not “dramatic,” as it had been advertised by the Likud beforehand, but “hysterical.”
According to Lapid, the public has grown tired of the prime minister’s “frayed nerves” and will no longer stand for such attacks against the gatekeepers of Israel’s democracy.
“They’re honest. They understand that it’s dangerous that he’s trying to take apart the rule of law.” Lapid said. “Yesterday we got the final proof that someone suspected of serious crimes cannot be prime minister.”
Netanyahu has dismissed the allegations as a witch hunt and has pushed for his attorney general to hold back on releasing a decision to indict until after the election, citing the fact that a hearing process on the matter, in which he would give his side of the story, cannot be completed before April.
“We won’t let him drag the country down with him,” Lapid said, in response to the premier’s demand. “There is a country to think about, Mr. Netanyahu. This country is bigger than you and it’s more important than you. After yesterday it’s clear that we can’t carry on like this.”
Wearing his trademark black jacket over a tight black t-shirt, the telegenic ex-anchorman attempted to present himself as the anti-Netanyahu: a leader who would focus on the needs of the people, not just himself.
Unlike Lapid, Netanyahu “won’t address anything that affects the real lives of real people. It doesn’t interest him.” But for Yesh Atid, the public is the “only thing that interests us,” the party chair said, which is why he believes the party can be victorious, despite a lackluster showing in polls.
“We will win because we work on what’s actually important. We know better than anyone how to deal with the cost of living and the middle class,” he claimed, repeating the messages from both his 2013 and 2015 platforms, promising economic relief for Israel’s beleaguered middle class.
As well as promising to reduce traffic jams and hospital waiting times, Lapid also turned, if only briefly, to Israel’s security and diplomatic challenges, vowing to “restore our deterrent in the face of Hamas,” and “go to a regional conference and start to separate from the Palestinians.”
While Lapid has repeated his claim that he can challenge Netanyahu for the premiership, recent polls have shown the party, which currently has 11 out of the 120-Knesset seats, slipping further away from Likud, which still holds a considerable lead over all other parties.
An alliance with former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who last week announced the launch of his Israel Resilience party, could however nip at Likud’s heels. If Gantz’s party were to join with Yesh Atid, the united party led by Lapid would win 26 seats to Likud’s 30, according to a poll published last week by Walla news.
Lapid has said he would welcome a partnership with Gantz but has ruled out any political union in which he was not a candidate for prime minister. On Tuesday, he said that he was confident support for Yesh Atid would grow in the three months remaining until the national ballot because it is “the only party capable of giving the Likud a fight,” and that other parties would eventually join it.
Much of the public might not yet agree with him, but activists in the hall chanting “the next prime minister” appeared ready for the battle ahead.
And Lapid said he was, too.
“Give us the keys, everything is ready. I can walk into the Prime Minister’s Office tomorrow and get to work. Tomorrow morning,” he told them.