Yesh Atid’s press gaggle at its weekly Knesset faction meeting has stood out from others since the party entered parliament in 2013.
With TV anchorman-turned-politician Yair Lapid at the helm, Yesh Atid helped turn the informal photo op and a few public statements — which political parties generally hold at the start of the legislative week — into a more conventional and respectable press conference.
Lapid was the first to introduce a party-branded backdrop filling the television frame behind him as he speaks from a similarly party-branded podium. Other parties followed.
When Knesset reporters said they would no longer cover the various party meetings unless press questions were allowed, Lapid was the first to accept the demand and introduce a formal roster of journalist queries. Other parties followed.
And, understanding the media as a former insider himself, Lapid always made sure his statements at the meetings included at least one punchy soundbite worthy of a headline. Other parties followed, as best they could.
But at this Monday’s faction meeting, it was Lapid who appeared to the one following.
He delivered a lengthy exposition on the “fake news” he said is being spread about him, in a speech that could have been taken directly out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political playbook.
Following a brief statement criticizing the government for a lack of coherent policy in responding to recent violence on Israel’s border with Gaza, Lapid launched into his diatribe with uncharacteristic and obvious frustration.
“In the past weeks we have witnessed an enormous attack of fake news against Yesh Atid, and against me personally,” Lapid charged. “I’ve been in politics for over six years now. Before that I was in the media for over thirty years. I’ve never seen so many lies.”
Using the phrase “fake news” drew instant comparisons to Netanyahu’s own derision of criticism directed at him.
While US President Donald Trump can be credited with popularizing the expression, it is Netanyahu, facing numerous criminal investigations into alleged corruption, who has introduced it into the Israeli political lexicon: Regularly accusing the media of carrying out “witch hunts” against him; dismissing specific journalists as biased and untrustworthy; and denouncing stories about him as “fake news” disseminated by enemies.
Similarly, Lapid blamed the circulation of “lies” against him on his own rivals, both to the left and right.
“It’s not coming from the fringes; it’s coming from the leadership. It’s being led by Netanyahu’s people, but the Zionist Union have also put money into it,” he claimed, adding, “they spread lies without shame.”
According to the Yesh Atid chairman, both Netanyahu and Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay “have convinced themselves that it’s OK to lie, it’s OK to distort, and it’s OK to invent things” in order to gain political points.
“There isn’t a tool they don’t use. Anonymous profiles. Fake quotes. Fake pages. The whole zig-zag campaign is based on things I’ve never said,” Lapid said referring to recent allegations he changes his opinions on an almost daily basis.
“They take things out of context. Things with no connection to reality,” Lapid said of Netanyahu and “his people.”
While notably not taking aim at the press, as Netanyahu has repeatedly done, Lapid did offer a “challenge to the media” as well as to law enforcement agencies who he said should be looking into the alleged deception.
“It’s time for someone to investigate: Who is funding this campaign? What are the sources? It’s serious money. Who pays all those people who sit on Twitter and Facebook all day just to denigrate me and Yesh Atid? How many of them are getting paid from the state’s coffers? Is that the role of an employee at the Prime Minister’s Office? To spread lies about political opponents,” he said through pursed lips, clearly angry over the depiction of him as a fickle and vacuous politician constantly changing his position on key topics.
Asked for examples of such malevolence against him, a Yesh Atid party official pointed to the often-anti-Lapid tweets of Topaz Luk and Yonatan Erich, social media advisers for the Prime Minister’s Office and the Likud party respectively, and several Facebook pages that share posts and memes mocking Lapid.
One such page, named “Enough Yair,” does indeed show several telltale signs of being backed up by significant funding, with its posts have been shared far and wide via paid Facebook ads. And the anonymous administrators of the page did not respond to repeated Times of Israel requests to reveal their identities or comment on their funding.
Responding to the allegations, both the Zionist Union party and the Prime Minister’s Office denied funding any anti-Lapid campaigns either on or off Facebook.
Whether Lapid’s complaints are justified or not, his tirade against detractors signifies a defiant, if panicky, change in direction following a series of polls showing his party losing increasing support to Netanyahu’s Likud.
Currently holding 11 Knesset seats, Yesh Atid had surged in public opinion surveys to overtake the now-30-seat-strong Likud. Recent months have however seen Likud recuperate its support, with the latest polls predicting a landslide of up to 42 seats for the ruling party, compared to some 18 for Yesh Atid.
As well as rattling Yesh Atid, the poll numbers show that Netanyahu’s own cries of “fake news” may have helped him persuade the public not to take heed of negative media reports about him, a move Lapid is likely be keen to replicate to help boost his own support.
Indeed, Lapid recognized his change in tactics, telling the journalists he had decided that “it’s time to move from defense to attack,” but denied a link to waning support numbers.
Instead, he said the poll numbers regularly fluctuated up and down and promised that he would soon be on top again: “Nothing is going to stop us. Yesh Atid’s way will beat the old politics and the fake news.”
Minutes later, Netanyahu’s social media advisers were back on Twitter.
“If Lapid goes into this much panic from an anonymous Facebook page against him, how will he stand up to the real pressures that the prime minister has to face?” goaded the Likud’s social media adviser Erich, ignoring Netanyahu’s own “fake news” claims, but apparently unmoved by the Yesh Atid leader’s address.