On Our Own

Lapid Lost, Obama Distracts

Gershom Gorenberg on how the Obama visit distracts from the real story in Israel: how rising political star Yair Lapid lost.

Ilia Yefimovich/Getty

If anyone is updating the White House's in-house guide to world etiquette, he might add that showing up in Israel during the Jews' annual Pesah-preparation madness—bollixing traffic, insisting on big important meetings—is just not done. Bibi Netanyahu, for all his faults, would know not to arrange a Washington visit on, say, December 23.

Netanyahu, though, has good reason to ignore the bad manners. Barack Obama has completely distracted attention from the startlingly right-wing government that Bibi installed on Monday. The only person who must be happier about this distraction is Yair Lapid: The centrist electoral phenom of January is the neophyte negotiator who signed the give-away coalition deal of March. Many houses will be built in West Bank settlements, and many social services will be cut inside Israel, in honor of Lapid.

The one consolation for Israelis who voted for change is that the new government is structurally weak, and more vulnerable to protest and public anger. (Lapid, to be fair, deserves credit for this as well.) This is an opportunity, not a gift: It will be worth nothing if it is not seized.After six weeks of coalition talks, Lapid agreed to become finance minister. This is one of the three most prestigious ministerial posts; the others are defense and foreign affairs. Equal prestige does not mean equal power. In Likud governments, the finance job is often a trap, assigned to someone whom the prime minister wants to destroy politically or to control. Ariel Sharon nearly finished Netanyahu by making him finance minister in 2003; Bibi took all the blame for policies that made the poor poorer. Last term Netanyahu gave the post to his lackey Yuval Steinitz, who was never heard from again.

Finance Ministry technocrats, who reputedly hold nightly séances with Milton Friedman, create the budget options. Netanyahu, of course, is their natural partner. Inexperienced and untrained, Lapid is no match for them. His Yesh Atid party promised the battered middle class an alternative to Bibinomics. To have a chance of achieving that, he could forgone the title of finance minister, and chosen one of the economists who backed the social protest movement to fill the job on behalf of his party.

At the locus of policy on peace, territory and Palestinians, the picture is worse. The defense minister does have real power, which includes administering the occupied territories. The Likud succeeded in keeping that post. Netanyahu gave it Moshe Yaalon, who believes that the purported status quo in the West Bank can continue indefinitely. In fact, nothing is static in the West Bank, especially as Israel continues building settlements.

Another ministry with real power is Housing. Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett leveraged his partnership with Lapid in the coalition talks to get the post for his party. Jewish Home is actually an alliance of the very pro-settler National Religious Party of old, and the very, very pro-settlement National Union. The new housing minister, Uri Ariel, represents the very-very half. As Housing Minister, he'll work with bureaucrats he knows from his days heading the Council of Settlements and, before that, the settlement-building organization Amana—the two institutional heirs of Gush Emunim. He is very unlikely to face constraints from Yaalon.

Yesh Atid told voters that it favored a two-state agreement. In the coalition deal, though, Lapid gave away the store to people dedicated to preventing any such agreement. The media was on this story for a couple of days, but then the Obama festival began.

Still, there's a change since Netanyahu's last term. For four years, his majority rested on a solid base of parties virtually uninterested in objections, foreign or domestic, to its occupation-forever policies. Foreign critics proved the eternal nature of anti-Semitism. Domestic critics were people who would never vote for us anyway. Netanyahu, heaven help us, was the relative moderate, at least concerned with keeping up appearances abroad, whether by saying "Palestinian state" in a speech or by trying to keep Labor—or a fragment thereof—in his coalition.

Now Netanyahu really needs Lapid, and Lapid picked people more astute than himself for his ticket. Some, at least, may understand that public anger at the government's economic or diplomatic stance could mean a short life for Yesh Atid and for their own parliamentary careers.

If Obama creates a real option of peace talks, it will help. People are more likely to demonstrate in favor of seizing a tangible opportunity than for an abstract principle. Ultimately, though, it's up to us, to Israelis, including those who voted for Lapid. One more excuse for despair and inaction has evaporated. It's time to organize and get back to the streets.