For Lapid, a battle against the odds to thwart Netanyahu’s comeback

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Provided Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid can engineer the demise of their government more efficiently than they held it together, the Knesset will next week pass the final readings of legislation to dissolve itself and set new elections for this fall — marking the fifth time the Israeli electorate has been dragged to the polling stations since April 2019.

Snap surveys published Tuesday night on Israel’s three main television channels ostensibly showed that, as with the previous occasions, election five will meet the definition of insanity (dubiously) attributed to Albert Einstein: doing the thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Four times from 2019 to 2021, the Israeli public elected a Knesset from which no stable, long-lasting functional governing coalition emerged. And Tuesday night’s surveys 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 “deadlocked,” with neither capable of mustering a Knesset majority, and the Joint List, a mainly Arab alliance, holding the balance of power between them.

Lazy or deliberate, this is a misreading of the electorate’s preferences. What all three surveys showed, in fact, is a sharp rise in support for the Netanyahu-led bloc — constituting Likud, the soaring far-right Religious Zionism party, and the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. In the March 2021 elections, those four parties managed 52 seats between them. Sixteen months later, the three TV surveys put them at 59-60 seats — on the cusp of a Knesset majority.

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

Bennett may or may not lead Yamina into the next elections. His long-time ally Ayelet Shaked might do so. Whoever leads it might want to maintain a certain ambiguity about its preferred coalition partners in order to maximize its diminishing appeal. (Yamina is polling at a weak 4-5 seats, barely above the Knesset threshold, at potential risk of extinction.) Whatever the case, while New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz have all this week made publicly clear that they will continue to resist Netanyahu’s return as prime minister, nothing similarly definitive can be said of Yamina.

Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz seen in the Knesset on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While the pundits talk of ongoing deadlock, therefore, Netanyahu’s delighted anticipation that he is on the way back to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street after Bennett’s immensely irritating interruption is understandable — and the latest polls will have done nothing to dent that confidence.

But while Bennett opted never to make his home at Balfour Street, there will be another prime ministerial resident for at least the next few months: interim prime minister Lapid. He will hold the reigns of power, under a coalition agreement honored by Bennett, from the moment the Knesset dissolves, through the elections, 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 implausible coalition, and his own 17-strong Yesh Atid party (rising in the polls) has remained unstintingly loyal to him and to it (in contrast to Bennett’s broken Yamina).

Lapid has twice put aside his prime ministerial ambitions — in partnering in 2019 with Gantz (who broke their alliance in 2020 to enter a predictably ill-fated coalition alliance with Netanyahu), and in ushering Bennett into power last year. He forwent his own speech during the raucous Knesset session last June when Bennett was sworn in to lead the government he had painstakingly assembled. He barely spoke on Monday when Bennett announced his dismissal.

Now Lapid is about to have his moment, and to take on the against-all-odds challenge of turning a brief premiership into a lengthy and substantial one.

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

Netanyahu will gleefully seek to discredit Lapid as a lightweight and, as he did with Bennett, as a danger to Israel’s security. He will attempt to stain Lapid as the proven partner of Ra’am, which the former prime minister repeatedly demonizes as a supporter of terrorism even though he, too, sought to forge an alliance with it. He will argue that Lapid’s only path to electoral victory lies in coopting the still more unpalatable Joint List.

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

Proud may be of the outgoing coalition’s achievements, though its failure to hold together will be depicted by Netanyahu as a debacle. Furious though he and Bennett may be at the relentless pressure Netanyahu exerted on its members, the fact is that Netanyahu succeeded — that Yamina fell apart, and the unreliability of other coalition members accelerated its demise.

Understated by nature, Lapid will need to run a bold campaign if he is to thwart Netanyahu’s comeback. He’ll need to credibly explain why he and his allies regard Netanyahu as a genuine danger to Israeli democracy. He’ll need to highlight that Netanyahu is the man who mainstreamed Itamar Ben Gvir and his incendiary anti-Arab pyromania dele, and that a Netanyahu government will be toxic with Ben Gvir’s extremism. He’ll need to effectively debate Netanyahu one-on-one, or show Netanyahu unwilling to face him.

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

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

He’ll have about four months in transitional office to establish his credibility as a permanent prime minister — to show that a leader can be both competent and magnanimous, resolute and empathetic, and that commitments to the country’s internal unity and to a fierce defense against its enemies are not mutually exclusive.

Four months, and multiple limitations on what he is allowed to do as an interim premier.

Four months to reverse what the polls are really showing.

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