In a Tel Aviv cafe on Sunday afternoon, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid insisted on speaking strictly in English, in anticipation of his Jerusalem town hall event Wednesday evening targeting English-speaking immigrants. Dressed in a black t-shirt, a jacket casually slung over his chair and exuding the swagger of a former TV journalist, his voice, at times, took on a nearly Schwarzeneggerian lilt.
“I’m always in full-fledged campaigning mode,” the prime ministerial hopeful conceded with a laugh. “This is what we do.”
In an interview that ranged from whether he thought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ought to resign if his wife Sara is indicted in the coming weeks (no); the prime minister’s hundreds of telephone calls to the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily’s editor and owner in 2012-2015 (“questionable”); revelations of talks between the Yedioth Ahronoth publisher, his former boss, and Netanyahu, also his former boss (“way out of order”); to the dismembered Foreign Ministry and its relationship to Iran’s lurking presence in Syria and Lebanon (“they could for example, bring Iranian submarines to our shores”), the opposition party leader largely steered clear of any biting criticism of the premier.
Lapid was also ducking from openly criticizing his ostensible new rival, Labor party chief Avi Gabbay whose recent win in the party leadership appeared to chip away at Yesh Atid’s recent surge in the — relentlessly fickle — opinion polls.
Gabbay “seems to be a good guy, and it’s a good thing that good people are going into politics,” he maintained.
Lapid staying away from going on the attack was no surprise. He has been called out by some critics for both vagueness in his centrist ideology and of shifting his party rightward to appeal to a larger voter base.
“I’m deeply insulted at you suggesting that I am part of the center-left, we are the center-center,” Lapid said.
Though elections were not officially scheduled until November 2019, but perpetually anticipated to be bumped up, as part of his campaign efforts, the Yesh Atid party was set to court the “reasonable” Anglos, noting that most were from “well established democracies.”
“For those people, the left is not national enough, meaning not Jewish enough. And the right is dangerously filled with contempt to[ward] the basic establishments of democracy. And we are a national liberal party, meaning we understand Israel as first and foremost a Jewish state and it doesn’t contradict, to us, democratic values.”
Moreover, he added, immigrants “tend to take the country more personally. Because it’s not the place they were born, it’s the choice they made.”
When does he think the next election will be? “I’ve been wrong about this for two years in a row, so I’ll be wrong again, saying probably April, May,” he chuckled. “And if I’m wrong,” he added, “ask me again in April.”
‘He doesn’t need to step down because of something his wife did’
Some think elections may come sooner, with the prime minister implicated in two police investigations and a third, even larger corruption scandal, bringing down many close to him ( though Netanyahu is not himself a suspect.)
The most immediate legal trouble is faced by Netanyahu’s face Sara, who is reportedly facing an imminent indictment.
Lapid said the prime minister need not resign should Sara be indicted, amid speculation criminal charges will be lodged against her in the coming days for diverting public funds.
“First of all, we don’t know what’s going to happen. I feel very uncomfortable about anything that has to do with the prime minister’s family. I think the kind of hunt over his wife and children is unacceptable to me and I totally sympathize with his anger towards the idea that they were thrown into this,” said Lapid.
“If there are charges, he doesn’t need to step down because of something his wife did,” added the opposition Knesset member.
But Lapid also charged that the prime minister’s hundreds of phone calls with the Israel Hayom editor Amos Regev and owner Sheldon Adelson was “questionable” and recordings of the prime minister pledging to curb the Adelson-owned daily to benefit the rival Yedioth paper are “way out of line.”
Forced by a Supreme Court order to reveal the dates of his phone calls with the owner and chief editor of a newspaper seen as staunchly loyal to him, Netanyahu revealed on Thursday that from 2012-2015 he spoke with American Jewish casino mogul Adelson almost once a week (120 times) and nearly double that with then-Israel Hayom editor Amos Regev (223 calls).
“I said ‘whoa.’ That’s a huge number,” Lapid said of his initial reaction to the revelations. “Two years out of that, I was his minister of finance, and he didn’t talk to me that much.”
“I think quantity counts,” added the former journalist more seriously. “I think yes, journalists and politicians constantly speak, on and off the record, it’s part of what you do. But this is a surprising quantity, to say the least, and makes you wonder about the nature of the conversation… He says Sheldon Adelson is his friend, and I think they are friends,” he said. “But he’s no friend with [of] Amos Regev. So it’s questionable.”
Lapid also described the tapes of conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes as “unacceptable,” specifically focusing on reports the prime minister personally tried to help broker the full or partial sale of Israel’s best-selling daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, to various international businessmen and publishers.
The recordings are at the heart of one of the corruption probes into the prime minister, Case 2000, over suspicions that he and Mozes hatched an illicit bargain under which Yedioth would give Netanyahu favorable coverage in return for the prime minister pushing legislation to neuter Yedioth’s rival, the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom.
On the allegations Netanyahu got personally involved in pushing a sale, Lapid, a long-time former Yedioth weekly columnist, said: “This is way out of order. This is the kind of conversation that cannot happen in a democracy between the publisher and the editor-in-chief.”
The alleged behavior, “even if it’s not criminal, we tend to forget the question of whether or not charges are going to be pressed are not the only measurement in public life. It’s just morally… just plain wrong and it cannot happen,” he said.
But Lapid declined to hazard a guess on the legal outcome of the investigations, saying only that he has “total confidence” in the Israel Police and attorney general “and I will accept whatever they decide.”
‘We were not at the table when decisions were made’
Lapid, a former finance minister, maintained Israel was sidelined from US-Russia talks on the future of Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon, paving the way for Tehran to build an airbase on Israel’s border and send submarines to “our shores.”
According to Lapid, who has taken it upon himself to tackle some of Israel’s foreign relations in numerous trips abroad, that was the result of what he described as the Jewish state’s waning diplomatic influence to the fragmentation of the Foreign Ministry’s powers under Netanyahu — who holds the foreign affairs portfolio — into half a dozen ministries.
Last week, the Arabic daily Asharq Al Awsat reported that US officials have agreed to let Iranian-backed militias take up positions in Syria less than ten kilometers from the Israeli Golan Heights. That report appeared to back up Russian media claims that Moscow has ignored pleas from Israel to prevent Iran from exploiting Syria’s ongoing civil war to expand its military influence into Syrian territory.
Citing unnamed Western diplomatic sources, the report said a US team that was holding talks with their Russian counterparts in Amman, Jordan, to discuss the nationality of observer forces overseeing a July truce, backed down on some of their initial demands.
Israel was “unaware of many of the talks between the Americans and the Russians and were unable to influence them and we were not at the table when decisions were made, unlike before,” said Lapid, comparing the situation to that five years ago.
“We needed, month[s] and month[s] ago, to start a diplomatic campaign — especially within the United States, but also within Russia and the UN — against the idea of Iranians 20 kilometers from the Israeli border,” he said.
Jerusalem has also warned against Iranian efforts to set up missile production facilities in Lebanon, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman telling United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a meeting in Israel last week that Iran is “working to set up factories to manufacture accurate weapons within Lebanon itself.”
The presence of at least two Iranian missile manufacturing facilities was revealed by Israel earlier this summer. On Monday, Netanyahu told Guterres that Iran was also involved in the construction of another missile base in Syria.
Despite media reports, by all accounts, Iran has not yet begun production at its missile plants — which will purportedly produce rockets that have a greater accuracy than the Iran-backed Hezbollah’s terror group’s current arsenal. However, contracts between Syria and Lebanon on one side and Iran on the other to establish the factories are nearly complete, as is a deal for Iran to build a seaport at Syria’s Tartus, giving it access to the Mediterranean.
The “Iranians are going to have access to the Tartus harbor,” Lapid asserted. “Meaning, they could for example, bring Iranian submarines to our shores… they have the ability of building an airbase, and they’re going to have forces, boots on the ground, 20 kilometers from our border,” he said.
Last week, in a Facebook post, Lapid blamed Netanyahu for the situation. “For 20 years, he’s spoken about Iran, and finally we’ve arrived at the worst possible outcome: Iranians on the Israeli border. This failure is registered in his name since he did not formulate a clear policy and did not manage to create the political power to allow us to change the reality.”
In person, however, Lapid was more conciliatory.
“Listen, I don’t like this anti-Netanyahu instinct in which people blame him for everything going on. So I do not blame only him,” he said.”Russia is going to do what’s good for Russia. And we’re in this new era in which there are no complete enemies. They can be a friend on one issue and an enemy on another.”
“I can tell you that on the Israeli side, what can be done wasn’t done and we didn’t perform the way we should have and the reason is we do not have what I consider a functioning government,” he added. “You don’t have a functional Foreign Ministry. You don’t have a functional National Security Council,” he added, referring to the leadership role of the council, vacant of a permanent representative from 2015 until August 2017. “You don’t have a functional [security] cabinet,” he said, accusing it of being incapable “of making decisions, let alone having a strategy.”
“Do we have a strategy in Syria?” he asked rhetorically. “Right now, the strategy is the prime minister is going to give a great speech in the UN on September 19. I’m giving you [a] head’s up, it’s going to be fantastic. But this is not a strategy.”
Avi Issacharoff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.