When Yair Lapid surprised pundits by leading his new party to a second place finish in Israel’s parliamentary elections three months ago, it gave hope to those looking for a real alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, and other right wing politicians. Perhaps, some speculated, Lapid could even claim the Foreign Ministry and revive the ailing peace process. That outcome wasn’t in the cards—Lapid’s Yesh Atid party did well, but Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu did better—and with limited ambitions in his first election, Lapid invested all his political capital in domestic affairs rather than diplomatic issues.
Though Lapid’s potential as a force for peace will not be realized in this Knesset, it may well be in the next. Indeed, the prospects for peace in the next government will hinge on Lapid’s ability—or inability—to prove to the Israeli people that he is the right person to lead the country.
The next election may not be that far off. Few people expect this uncomfortable coalition to last; odds are that one crisis or another will lead it to dissolve in the next two years. The region is in flux, the ultra-Orthodox are unhappy, and Netanyahu knows that his coalition “partners” Lapid and Bennett are both waiting for the right moment unseat him. They all see it as a temporary arrangement focused on domestic affairs until a more definitive election determines the 20th Knesset.With regards to Lapid and the peace process, there are four possible outcomes.
One is success. As finance minister, Lapid has a difficult task ahead of him. How can he cut spending, raise revenue, and still remain popular, all while moving forward on his ambitious plans to transform Israel’s relationship with its ultra-Orthodox minority? The job is high-risk, but can also be high-reward. Israelis may respect Lapid for tackling big, unappetizing issues, and Lapid’s budget proposal already received some unexpected praise. Moreover, Netanyahu is walking a tightrope as well, pushed on one side by hawkish Knesset members and on the other by an international community demanding peace. If Lapid thrives and Netanyahu botches a major foreign policy issue, Lapid might have a chance at victory. Were he able to build a coalition with Labor, Meretz, and Tzipi Livni, a Lapid prime ministership would certainly be a good sign for peace.
What happens if Yesh Atid collapses? This is another scenario, and it would likely help the Israeli right. But the opposite could also be true. If Yesh Atid proves to be a temporary phenomenon, its dissolution could make room for other leaders on the Left to rise. Though Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich does not look like a future Prime Minister, there are others who may arise to challenge Netanyahu in the next election. A popular military figure like Gabi Ashkenazi could be well-positioned to challenge Netanyahu on security issues, but might be deterred from running if Lapid continues to poll well with centrist voters. But if Lapid and Yachimovich falter—or even if they don’t—expect someone like Ashkenazi or possibly Yuval Diskin to either try to take over Labor or form their own party to challenge the Prime Minister. The election of an Ashkenazi-led center-left coalition would be an even better sign for peace than a Lapid-led government because of the former general’s credibility on security issues.
But mediocrity is always the most likely scenario. A third possible outcome is that Lapid’s term as finance minister will neither sink him nor propel him to victory. If Yesh Atid loses a few seats to Likud or HaBayit HaYehudi, Lapid will remain sidelined on major issues of Israeli foreign policy.
Finally, it is very possible that the coalition will fall apart without triggering a new election. If a diplomatic crisis occurs and Netanyahu swings rightward, alienating Lapid and Livni, the Prime Minister could retain a bare majority of Knesset seats by replacing them with the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. This scenario would essentially recreate the core coalition that comprised Netanyahu’s last government (2009-2013), which made little progress on the peace front.
Lapid’s performance as Finance Minister will be an important variable in Israeli politics and the peace issue, but certainly not the only one. Regional events will undoubtedly play a major role in contextualizing the next election. Will Palestinians declare a third Intifada? Will Syria collapse or Egypt renege on the Camp David Accords? Or will war erupt with Iran? These are all unpredictable possibilities that could fundamentally alter Israel’s discourse on security. It’s worth remembering that the desire to neutralize the Syrian threat though peace negotiations helped rally the defense establishment against Netanyahu in 1999. Regional changes could bring Netanyahu down again. The Prime Minister could also surprise us all on negotiations—stranger things have happened.
But barring a surprise, the best hope for progress on the peace process hinges on the electoral fate of the Israeli center-left. For now, there’s only one politician in the Knesset with the electoral potency to unseat Netanyahu from the left, and that’s Yair Lapid. His ability to remain popular while holding one of the most unpopular positions in the cabinet will determine whether he’ll alter the trajectory of Israeli history—or become a mere footnote within it.