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For Lapid, a battle against the odds of thwarting Netanyahu’s comeback

Written by Javed Iqbal

An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. Join the ToI community to receive these Editor’s Notes as they are published here.

Provided that Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid can construct the resignation of their government more effectively than they held together, the Knesset will next week pass the final readings of legislation to dissolve itself and hold new elections this fall – marking the fifth time that Israeli voters have been drawn to the polls since April 2019.

Snap surveys published Tuesday night on Israel’s three main television channels apparently showed that election five, as on previous occasions, would meet the definition of insane (doubtful) attributed to Albert Einstein: to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.

Four times from 2019 to 2021, the Israeli public elected a Knesset from which no stable, long-lasting and fully functional governing coalition emerged. And Tuesday night’s polls were generally presented as showing that the current Knesset “blocs” – the eight parties in the outgoing Bennett-Lapid coalition and the four parties in the Benjamin Netanyahu-led opposition – will again be “locked in” without that any of them are capable of mustering a majority in the Knesset, and the common list, a predominantly Arab alliance that maintains the balance of power between them.

Lazy or conscious, this is a misreading of voters’ preferences. What all three studies actually showed is a sharp increase in support for the Netanyahu-led bloc – which makes up Likud, the soaring right-wing extremist party Religious Zionism and the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. In the March 2021 election, these four parties managed 52 seats among themselves. Sixteen months later, the three television polls put them at 59-60 seats – on the brink of a majority in the Knesset.

Furthermore, it is by no means clear that Bennett’s Yamina should automatically be included in the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Bennett himself did not rule out sitting with Netanyahu last year; on the contrary, he publicly signed one lift two days before the election not to sit in a government led by Lapid and dependent on the support of Mansour Abbas Ra’am party. Even two weeks later, after the results had come, he declared that the “will of the people” was “the establishment of a stable right-wing, nationalist government.”

Bennett may or may not lead Yamina into the next election. His longtime ally Ayelet Shaked can do that. Whoever leads it may want to retain some ambiguity about its preferred coalition partners in order to maximize its declining appeal. (Yamina votes in weak 4-5 seats, just above the Knesset threshold, with potential risk of extinction.) Either way, while New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Beytenus ‘Avigdor Liberman and Blue and Whites’ Benny Gantz have all made this week public clear that they will continue to oppose Netanyahu’s return as prime minister, nothing similar can be definitively said about Yamina.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz seen in Knesset June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

While experts talk of a sustained stalemate, Netanyahu’s delighted expectation that he is on his way back to the prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street after Bennett’s extremely annoying interruption is understandable – and recent polls will have done nothing to weaken that confidence.

But while Bennett never chose to live on Balfour Street, there will be at least one other prime minister in the next few months: interim prime minister Lapid. He will keep the reins of power, according to a coalition agreement that Bennett honored, from the moment the Knesset is dissolved, through the election, and until a new governing coalition is sworn in.

Lapid is now a 10-year veteran politician, conciliatory and quietly effective. It was he who put together the country’s most unlikely coalition, and his own 17-man Yesh Atid party (rising in the polls) has remained steadfastly loyal to him and that (unlike Bennett’s crushed Yamina).

Lapid has twice set aside his prime ministerial ambitions – by collaborating in 2019 with Gantz (who broke their alliance in 2020 to enter into a predictably fateful coalition alliance with Netanyahu) and by initiating Bennett to power last year. He left his own speech below hoarse The Knesset meeting in June last year, when Bennett was sworn in to lead the government he had painstakingly assembled. He barely spoke Monday, when Bennett announced its downfall.

Now Lapid is about to have its moment and take on the challenge against all odds of turning a short premiere period into a long and comprehensive one.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) smiles ahead of a preliminary vote to dissolve the Knesset for new elections, June 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90)

Netanyahu will happily try to discredit Lapid as a lightweight and, as he did with Bennett, as a threat to Israel’s security. He will try to tarnish Lapid as the documented partner of Ra’am, whom the former prime minister repeatedly demonizes as a supporter of terrorism, although he also tried to enter into an alliance with it. He would argue that Lapid’s only path to electoral victory lies in recording the even more distasteful common list.

Lapid will counter that his and Bennett’s coalition sought to restore respect and harmony in Israeli politics; that it worked to heal the economy, tackle terrorism, and maintain warm ties with the United States, while deepening the partnership to counter Iran. That it, unlike Netanyahu, put the national interest before the personal.

Although Lapid is proud of the results of the outgoing coalition, its inability to hold together by Netanyahu will be portrayed as a debacle. Although he and Bennett are furious at the relentless pressure Netanyahu exerted on his members, the fact is that Netanyahu succeeded – that Yamina fell apart and the unreliability of the other coalition members accelerated its death.

Underplayed by nature, Lapid will have to wage a daring campaign if he is to thwart Netanyahu’s comeback. He will have to explain credibly why he and his allies regard Netanyahu as a real threat to Israeli democracy. He will have to highlight that Netanyahu is the man who mainstream Itamar Ben Gvir and his fiery anti-Arab pyromania, and that a Netanyahu government will be toxic to Ben Gvir’s extremism. He will have to effectively debate Netanyahu one-on-one or show that Netanyahu is not willing to meet him.

He will have to maximize the fact of his position; it will be the first time in five that Netanyahu is running for prime minister from the opposition. As interim prime minister, Lapid will host high-profile visitors, starting next month with US President Joe Biden, be able to make resounding foreign trips and seek to advance toward warmed relations with other regional actors.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks at a conference hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem on June 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

He will have about four months in the transition period to establish his credibility as permanent prime minister – to show that a leader can be both competent and generous, determined and empathetic, and that commitment to the country’s internal unity and to a fierce defense against its enemies are not mutually exclusive.

Four months and more restrictions on what he can do as interim prime minister.

Four months to reverse what the polls really show.

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Javed Iqbal

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