Something happened to him. Something changed. He’s not the same person that he was.
So says Yair Lapid, the country’s second most favored choice of prime minister, about the man he is determined to defeat: the seemingly perennial first choice, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Interviewed this week in a bustling Ramat Aviv cafe, Yesh Atid leader Lapid acknowledges helpfully that he’s not Netanyahu’s psychologist, but he ascribes that change to a combination of factors including the prime minister’s legal problems, the sheer length of his time in office, and the fact that the world is changing and he didn’t change fast enough with it.
Lapid insists that he’s not blind to Netanyahu’s many achievements, but ultimately, in his telling, what Israel is witnessing with Netanyahu now is the corrosive impact of a premier far too long in power. He can’t even think of another Western leader in office today who was first elected as far back as Netanyahu’s initial victory, in 1996. (Because there isn’t one, though it should be noted, of course, that Netanyahu was out of office for 10 of those 22 years, between 1999 and 2009.)
And while Lapid goes to considerable lengths to challenge Netanyahu’s persuasive assertion of Israel’s economic and foreign relations renaissance, and to highlight Netanyahu’s failures in tackling the threats posed by Iran, he says it is Israel’s domestic cohesion that is most threatened by the prime minister’s hold. What worries him most, as Israel turns 70 and he wonders how the country will fare in the years to come, is Israelis’ capacity “to work together towards a common good” — a critical factor in Israel’s survival and one he claims that Netanyahu cynically undermines by fueling division for narrow political gain.
Therefore, if elected prime minister, Lapid, 54, promises he’ll pass legislation mandating a two-term prime ministerial limit. And he’ll pass it early, he says, before he too succumbs to the typical Israeli prime ministerial delusion that the country’s very existence depends on him retaining the post, and that all means can be sacrificed to that end.
Under Netanyahu, Lapid asserts, the determination to retain power at all costs is coming to threaten Israel’s very democracy — with the courts, law enforcement and the media all under sustained attack. Asked what’s wrong with legislation, currently contemplated by Netanyahu, that would prevent the High Court from striking down Knesset legislation it finds to be undemocratic, he answers starkly, with a rather unhappy laugh: “Because if tomorrow the 66 members of the coalition vote through a law saying we’re hanging the other 54 opposition members of Knesset from a tree, who are we going to go to?”
Netanyahu and his government, he further charges, are exhibiting a “failure to understand politics as an ongoing process, in which sometimes you’re in power and sometimes you’re not, and that you have to protect the rights of the people who are not in power, including minorities.” Lapid’s most devastating critique? That Netanyahu is no longer a defender of Israeli democracy.
I’d have been happy to discuss these critiques, and a whole host of other issues, with the prime minister himself, needless to say. But the Prime Minister’s Office, as is its wont, did not respond to a request for an interview beyond acknowledging it. Netanyahu long since abandoned a tradition by which Israeli prime ministers made themselves available for multiple interviews by the Israeli media twice a year — around Passover/Independence Day and New Year. (Apart from a few brief minutes in China last year, the last time he spoke on the record to The Times of Israel was on the eve of the 2015 elections.)
And yet, the polls keep showing, this ostensibly dangerous Netanyahu is still far more popular than Lapid, and his coalition would triumph again if elections were called. Threat to democracy or not, it’s Netanyahu that Israelis plainly still want. Responds Lapid, determinedly, “Well, this is my job description — to convince them that I’m a better alternative.”
Lapid spoke in English. What follows is a transcript lightly edited for clarity and concision.
The Times of Israel: Here we are at that time of year again — the mourning and the celebration.
Yair Lapid: I wrote many years ago that this is the only country where the difference between the saddest day and the happiest day is only 60 seconds. We’ve debated whether or not to separate those two, but I think we’re better off with them touching each other.
The former enables the latter. It’s appropriate.
How do you think we should be feeling on our 70th birthday? Obviously it’s an amazing achievement to have reached 70 in this toxic part of the world, and, moreover, to be thriving. But we also have lots of problems.
On anniversaries you tend to think on a bigger scale. I’m 54 years old. When my grandfather was 54, he was already dead — ashes in Mauthausen concentration camp. When my father was 54, in 1985, the country was in a healing process from the first Lebanon war; the startup nation was not invented yet. There was a fragility to Israel that you don’t feel now. We’re doing well.
I look at my son and I recognize that we live in an amazing country and I’m happy for him that he’s here. I should believe that when he turns 54, in 23 years from now, he’ll be living in a country that’s better than the one I’m living in. But, for the first time in my lifetime, I’m not convinced that Israel’s future is necessarily better than its present or past.
Because nobody’s taking care of it. Because we have a totally dysfunctional system and leadership which is not as obligated [as its predecessors] to doing the right thing even if it has political consequences. We were brought to the amazing place we are now by people who led us in the right way, and I don’t think we have those kind of leaders now.
It’s the system or the personalities?
They have to do with each other. The political system is totally unsuitable, not only to what this country needs, but also to the soul and spirit of the nation.
That sounds like the sour grapes complaint of somebody who’s not winning. The public, in every poll that we see — despite Netanyahu’s reversals on the deportations of migrants, the corruption cases, the strains with the Diaspora, etc., etc. — seems to like him more and more. Don’t we have the leadership and the system that the people want?
First of all, the incumbent always has the advantage until election day; only then do we know what the public really wants.
I disagree with Netanyahu; I’m not a member of Likud. But to be fair to Netanyahu, he’s done a lot of good things for the country as well. The only problem we have is that something happened to him.
I think we can agree that if we want democracy to defend us, we need to defend democracy as well. He doesn’t do this anymore, which is alarming. And it’s twice as bad, because he wasn’t like that in the past. This is something that’s happened in the last two or three years, because he’s been in office too long
I’ve known him for more than 20 years. I’ve served [as finance minister in 2013-14] in his government. [In the Channel 10 Independence Day television series on Israel’s leaders] you can see the moment when [first prime minister David] Ben-Gurion had been there too long. It’s the same with Netanyahu. He’s been there too long.
Something happened to him? What does that mean?
Something changed. I’m not his psychologist.
Like all politicians, he had his own agenda, but if it was him or the country, the country came first. It’s not like that anymore. If he feels — and he does — that the divisions in Israeli society serve him politically, he has no problem contributing to these divisions instead of seeing it as his duty to heal the wounds. And if he feels it serves him politically to have an open attack on the police, the Supreme Court, on all the institutions…
I think we can agree that if we want democracy to defend us, we need to defend democracy as well. He doesn’t do this anymore, which is alarming. And it’s twice as bad, because he wasn’t like that in the past. This is something that’s happened in the last two or three years, because he’s been in office too long.
Don’t all of our prime ministers become convinced over the years that if they are not prime minister, the country is in terrible peril?
And therefore all means to that end? Is that what we’re seeing?
Yes and hence the term limits that some democracies have.
That’s what you would do here? You would change the system in that respect?
Yes. I introduced a bill in this Knesset for a two-term limit on the prime minister. And if I’m prime minister, this is something I would pass in the first three months. Because probably after three or four years, you’d also be in peril of convincing yourself [that only you can lead the country].
But the public, again, obviously likes him more than the alternatives.
Well, this is my job description — to convince them that I’m a better alternative.
I’m not part of this anti-Bibi camp that thinks that everything he ever did in his life was wrong. I don’t have that instinct. I come from a right-wing family. I already served in his government. I know his family. It’s just he’s been there for too long and he’s taking the country on the wrong course now.
You said you don’t think there’s the fragility that there was before for Israel. So we are at least more certain of existing? Are you sure that we’re through the worst period in terms of physical threats?
We had worse times. Think of the atmosphere in this country in May 1967, when my grandparents called my parents from abroad and told them, the least you can do is send the children to us. It was so obvious to everybody, five minutes before this unbelievable triumph, that the country was going to be destroyed.
We do face things that are alarming. The Iranians in Syria. Hezbollah, the biggest terror organization on earth, with 140,000 missiles and rockets aiming at us as we speak, and some of them precision-guided. But if you ask me what is the biggest fear, it relates to Israeli society and our ability to work together towards a common good.
On the eve of the 1973 war, there was no sense here of existential peril, but we were in existential peril. You don’t think we’re overly complacent now? What happens if a few weeks from now hundreds of thousands march on the border from Gaza, and Hezbollah opens up a second front, and who knows what goes on in the West Bank. Are we as capable as we think we are, of meeting any grave physical threats?
Yes, we are. The things you’re describing are alarming, but they’re not existential threats. An existential threat is five Arab armies moving toward our borders. There’ll be no such war.
We live in a time in which the differentiation between peacetime and wartime is opaque. We need to have good answers to 50,000 Palestinians marching on our border in Gaza, but it’s not an existential threat. Israel is mightier than any of our enemies, including Iran.
So you’re most concerned about social cohesion and the stability of our democracy?
And our ability to work together, and to make sure that our best and our brightest are here.
It could all be so different internally if only what?
Countries don’t work like that. Countries are big boats and turning them takes time. What we need is a different leadership, really making plans and working for the future of the country, not the future of the politicians. That’s why we [in Yesh Atid] put forward the 7 point plan for the future of this country. It’s sad. When we issued it, I was eager for debate. But there is no debate. I don’t want to be one of those people who blames the media for everything. But basically we couldn’t even get a real debate going about the economy in the age of the machines, about social gaps…
Netanyahu would argue that he’s tackling all of this. That under him the economy is thriving. And that our foreign relations are great.
It’s fine to argue as long as your claims are correct. Let’s take the two examples you gave.
Israel’s economy is doing very well: the startup nation was established due to two processes created by two different governments. The Likud government in the 1980s, that created the Office of the Chief Scientist. And a Labor government in the 1990s, that created what they call the initiative program — essentially governmental hedge funds for the high-tech industry. Nobody’s doing anything right now to create the next economy. We’re living now on the fuel of the decisions that were made 20 years ago.
On that horrible night that you probably remember, when they passed the penultimate budget and gave money to everyone — [United Torah Judaism’s Moshe] Gafni took 80 million shekels and [Likud MKs] Micky Zohar 40 million and Oren Hazan 10 million which he hasn’t used to this day because he doesn’t know how. They gave money to anybody, to any politician, to any coalition agreement, but by the end of the night, they had no money left, so they cut from something which has no political price, which was the chief scientist budget. The budget that is supposed to create the next economy. Innovation. The economic air that we breathe. This is the kind of irresponsibility that this government is demonstrating.
As for the other example you cited, here things are even worse because there is no foreign policy renaissance. You’re not going to print this, but I’m going to tell you anyway. You’re not going to print it because it’s long and it’s complex, but it’s interesting.
In Israel’s foreign policy we have eight arenas: the United Sates, American Jews, the European Union, international establishments such as the UN, the Middle East, Russia, China, and what we’ll call the rest of the world. Aside from an arena and a half, we’re not doing better than we were, say, two years ago. We’re doing a lot worse. We’re doing well in the United States because Donald Trump was elected and is a devoted supporter of Israel and I couldn’t be happier about that. The [scheduled opening next month in Jerusalem of the US] embassy is the perfect present for Israel’s 70th anniversary.
But [Trump’s election] had nothing to do with Israeli policy. The Republican candidate who we did support, Mitt Romney in 2012, lost, and it was a huge mistake supporting him. The Republican candidate we didn’t support, Donald Trump, won.
So we’re doing better [as regards the US president].
We’re doing horribly within the Democratic Party, and with more conservative Republicans, and with American Jewry — with everything that is not the president. If you don’t believe me, look at the complete failure to convince the Americans to get involved in what is happening in Syria, Iran’s establishment [of its military] in Syria, which according to Netanyahu is the number one goal of our foreign policy.
As for the European Union, we just gave up. Apparently nobody cares about our biggest trading partner. We need the Europeans — including to tackle the money trail of Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. But we’ve decided to declare [EU foreign affairs chief] Frederica Mogherini an enemy, the European Union an anti-Semite. That does not constitute a policy for a country. What you do if you have a problem somewhere, is go and work to make it better. The same goes for the UN. I support leaving the UN Human Rights Council. But anything else [you have to work on it]. You don’t appoint a second or third class politician to be your ambassador to the United Nations. You make sure you have the best diplomat on earth there, fighting the fight.
Russia is ignoring our most urgent security needs over Syria. China in the next few years will become Iran’s biggest trading partner.
In the rest of the world, where Netanyahu [ostensibly] did well, you have to distinguish between photo ops and policies. He got an unbelievable photo op in India and everybody was so impressed they missed the fact that a few weeks later [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi came from India to the Palestinian Authority, went to Arafat’s grave, and called him one of the greatest leaders ever. And Modi hosted [Iran’s President Hassan] Rouhani in India. It was unbelievable: The reception for Rouhani was a carbon copy of the one that Netanyahu had. But the deals they signed are ten times bigger, including for an Indian port inside Iran, meaning we’re being messed with again.
And this is called a policy renaissance? There is no renaissance.
There is no one working on the economy. Or making an effort to minimize social gaps.
Having said all that, I’m not one of those leftists who thinks the country is terrible. The country is unbelievable. The army is fantastic. The people are the best. We live a good life.
Netanyahu would bitterly dispute that he is resting on the economic laurels of 20 years ago. For starters, he would stress Israel’s capacity in cyber, including to counter cyber threats, where we’re a world leader.
Well, that’s true. The IDF is at the heart of that.
It’s a good thing that Netanyahu focused on cyber when he did. It’s a very good thing that he was talking about Iran when nobody else wanted to. If he was the same person that he was then, I might have a weaker case
He’s done some good things. He started talking about cyber when nobody else was. But let’s not [try to claim credit that really goes to] the IDF. The IDF was the best army in the world in 1967. It was the army that almost broke, but then won, in 1973. It was the army that, in 1948, against all odds, created the country. This is not Benjamin Netanyahu’s doing. This is Ben-Gurion’s version of the iron wall: Part of the reason we won wars was that we were capable of maintaining our qualitative edge. The qualitative edge was always technological. Can you compare the cyber abilities we have to the fact that we built nuclear reactors here in this country in the 1950s? People had nothing to eat in the 1950s.
It’s a good thing that Netanyahu focused on cyber when he did. It’s a very good thing that he was talking about Iran when nobody else wanted to. If he was the same person that he was then, I might have a weaker case. But he isn’t. Unfortunately. For various reasons — including his legal problems, the fact that he’s been in office too long, and the fact that the world is changing and he wasn’t able to change fast enough with it. I can’t think of any other current democratic leader who was in power in 1996.
Do you think he’s a danger to democracy, that he’s destroying Israeli democracy, that he would destroy Israeli democracy to stay in power?
Israel’s democracy is strong and well established. But we are now the third generation from World War II. People don’t understand the risks and perils of not living in a democracy. So they want to live in a democracy, but they don’t want to pay the price.
Part of a strong, vital, vibrant democracy is change of leadership every now and then. The pendulum must move, and if somebody is trying to slow down or prevent the pendulum from moving by abusing his power of authority, then this is an undemocratic process
People tell themselves, I want to live in a democracy and I’m for a free press, but you can’t write everything, without understanding that the whole idea of a free press is that you can write everything. And they say, we want a strong Supreme Court, but they shouldn’t intervene in things they don’t understand. Without realizing that yes, the Supreme Court has to understand, but it is supposed to intervene. That is the purpose of the court. People say, yes, we should have a strong police force, but what’s wrong with the prime minister attacking the police? Well, there is something wrong with the prime minister attacking the police because if you don’t trust the police, who are you going to trust when the next intifada breaks out?
Part of a strong, vital, vibrant democracy is change of leadership every now and then. The pendulum must move, and if somebody is trying to slow down or prevent the pendulum from moving by abusing his power of authority, then this is an undemocratic process.
And that’s what you think is happening now?
We are seeing some of that now in Israel, yes.
And yet, when he attacks the police, he rises in the polls. Here’s a theory: Israelis hear you, and [Zionist Union leader] Avi Gabbay, and [Netanyahu’s former defense minister Moshe] Ya’alon, and others in the opposition, all telling us that it’s crisis time. That our leadership is bad for this country. But we don’t see you all as being so worried for this country as to put aside your egos and get together. If Moshe Ya’alon walked into Yesh Atid headquarters tomorrow, and said, Yair, I’m willing to be your number 2 because the hour is so critical, people might start to take it more seriously. Instead, we see all these dissenting egos who each warn that this is a terrible moment, but also all say that they have to be the one to oust the prime minister.
You’re lumping two things together. You cannot get together with people with whom you have a very different ideological prism. I cannot unify with Labor because they’re on the left and I’m in the center. For the same reason, I cannot have a unified party with the Likud.
You would, surely, if the domestic crisis was severe enough. You would say, we have to put aside ideological differences over diplomacy and security, albeit temporarily, to save the country internally.
Well, then, it’s not on me, it’s on the voters. This is what happens in real life. The voters look around and say, who has got the best chance of winning and then they go there in the elections. Until then, it’s what we see now.
Secondly, all these moves [by politicians into the various parties], all these generals people are talking about — and I think these are good people and I want them in politics — everyone will make their decisions when we have an election date. (Lapid is referring to such potential politicians as former chiefs of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz.) To maneuver just for the sake of maneuvering…
Yes, but these things will happen.
What’s wrong with the argument made by Netanyahu about constraining the Supreme Court. People say, we voted in these politicians. They make the laws. Why is it unacceptable [for the government to advance the legislation it is considering] to say the Supreme Court should not intervene [to overturn laws passed by the Knesset]?
Because if tomorrow the 66 members of the coalition vote through a law saying we’re hanging the other 54 opposition members of Knesset from a tree, who are we going to go to? (Lapid laughs rather sadly.) The idea that democracy is only about the majority… When people talk about the tyranny of democracy, this is what they’re talking about. The entire idea of democracy is checks and balances.
But the problem with the bills that the government is discussing now is even greater because of the motive for the legislation. Why now? Netanyahu’s been prime minister on and off since 1996. Twenty-two years. Why now? Because of his legal problems, and [his belief] this will serve him when dealing with his legal problems.
When they ask me about the French bill [the notion that a prime minster would be immune from prosecution so long as he’s in office], I say, I’m willing to have that discussion when we have somebody [as prime minister] who is not under investigation.
The key difference is that France has term limits for its immune-from-prosecution president.
I would add, since they’re also discussing the British model [of the balance between parliament and the courts], that it also has to do with political culture. And besides (laughs), if they’re going to have the British model here, I want the queen as well.
So again, this is an attack on the rule of law, an attack for the wrong reasons, by the wrong people.
Do you think there is something systematic here when it comes to media? The most read Hebrew daily, Israel Hayom, has been largely working for Netanyahu; there was an effort to reorient Ynet and Yedioth; there was influence at Walla, the second biggest news site after Ynet, and all sorts of machinations relating to television news. Was this an effort by the prime minister to corral the media?
The prime minister is far too preoccupied with what is written or broadcast about him. When you’re prime minister, you’re supposed to be a little above all that. You know what? I get my fair share of attacks. And I cannot tell you I’m philosophical about it. But this is part of the democratic game. And saying I’m going to get involved in changing it, actively using the powers I have, is dangerous. Beyond that, this is all under investigation [in the corruption probes against the prime minister]. It’s for the state prosecution to decide.
Let’s go back to the Russians and the Syrians. What should be done differently? We seem to have been very robust in Syria. We’re even apparently directly confronting Iran in Syria. Why do you say this hasn’t been handled well?
There were two cornerstones in Israeli foreign policy. No nuclear agreement [that didn’t fully dismantle Iran’s rogue nuclear program], and no Iran in Syria. The prime minister or the government has failed in both. Regarding Russia, we were promised time after time that everything would be taken care of. Netanyahu was going back and forth to Sochi and to Moscow, and was very proud of the mechanism [for coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow] they had created, which is a good one. But it doesn’t seem like we are capable of convincing the Russians to take into consideration our part of the equation.
Which may not be the prime minister’s fault.
I don’t know if it’s his fault or not. This is his job. His job is to make sure the Russians understand. They have their own interests. We have our own interests. Friendship is nice, but basically it’s about interests. The Russians need to know that if their main goal is to stabilize Syria, they will not have a stabilized Syria so long as the Iranians are there because we will not let them. And for everyone who is saying now that Israel is pushing for military conflict, let us remember that we are ten years late — because Iran has been pushing for violent military conflict with us for a decade or so. So they use proxies. But is there anyone who doesn’t know that Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy, or that some of the terror attacks were premeditated in Iran?
So yes, there’s going to be a conflict until they understand. There’s no point in red lines unless you stick by them. Apparently we were not successful in making the Russians understand that [for Israel, an Iranian military presence in Syria] is a red line. And that this will endanger Assad’s rule in the long term, that this will endanger the idea of a stabilized Syria.
Are you concerned that our elections could be manipulated via social media manipulation? I’m thinking Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and so on?
I have no doubt that there will be attempts to manipulate public opinion. There is always a certain amount of manipulation of public opinion, which is okay. But there is going to be foreign and not-foreign manipulation — with money.
Are you expecting to see your emails get hacked? That’s the kind of thing I’m asking you about.
Nothing would surprise me anymore. We monitor the social networks. Some of the stuff I saw about myself made my jaw drop. On the other hand, it was so obvious in France that they were trying to manipulate the election against Macron, and he went out and said to the French people, you know, somebody’s trying to manipulate you. And I think the Israeli people are at least as smart as the French, and we’ll make sure they understand what is going on and why it’s going on.
This government has convinced itself that it’s going to stay in power forever. And once you’ve said that to yourself, you have no reason to protect the rights of the opposition
All of a sudden every minister under the sun is advertising their work, and the work of their ministry, and the special events they’re holding, on the radio. It’s creating the sense that the minister is synonymous with the role, with the office, and therefore deepening this perception — because Netanyahu has been prime minister for so long — that they are the government and that nobody else is a credible alternative.
This is part of what we discussed before about the attrition of democracy. Why? Because part of living in a democratic society is the understanding, when you’re sitting in the Knesset, that sometimes you’re going to be in the coalition and sometimes you’re going to be in the opposition. So it makes sense that when you’re in the coalition, you’re going to make sure that at least some of the rights, or even the habits, that are protecting the opposition will be maintained, because it could be you [who needs them] in a year or two or three.
This government has convinced itself that it’s going to stay in power forever. And once you’ve said that to yourself, you have no reason to protect the rights of the opposition.
I’d like to see them, two years after, let’s imagine I’m prime minister. There is a coalition. They’re not in the coalition. And they have no Supreme Court to go to. They have to listen to our ministers all day long on the radio, glorifying themselves, using public money. And there’ll be no police to file complaints to, because the police would have been so weakened and frightened.
It’s that failure to understand politics as an ongoing process, in which sometimes you’re in power and sometimes you’re not, and that you have to protect the rights of the people who are not in power, including minorities.
Finally, respond to this government’s argument, this prime minister’s argument, that we’re the only people who can be trusted to run this country in this hostile region and this terrible era.
I’m not in the business of answering them. This is what I’m telling the Israeli public: You can trust us. You can trust me. You can trust us more than them because they are not to be trusted anymore.
And yet, Israeli voters went into the polling booths in 2015 and evidently decided they trusted Netanyahu and those around him to keep their kids in the army alive. I think that was a key factor.
You know what? Part of what trained me for the prime ministership is what happened to me in 2015 [when Yesh Atid fell from 19 seats to 11]. Because in 2015 we [in Yesh Atid] fell on our faces and everyone was standing around us and staring at the corpse and saying, they will never climb out of there. We did. Hard work. Going from place to place. Making sure we’d sharpened our ideas, our abilities, from a very low point. Until you’ve really fallen hard and climbed back up, you’re not prepared. That fall is part of the reason I’m prepared now.