Yair Lapid's Historic Opportunity
Bernard Avishai on what the leader of Israel's Yesh Atid party should do now that elections are over.
The final tally is in: Likud 31, Yesh Atid 19, Labor 15, Jewish Home 12, Shas 11, well, just get the rest of the numbers here.And so Yair Lapid is holding the strongest hand of any novice politician perhaps ever in the country’s history. Oh, except for Naftali Bennett, whose ability to pull blocks out of Netanyahu’s tower is exactly as great.Can we get real?
31, whose step-child is 12 (but doesn’t particularly like the leader of 12), is trying to get to 61. So 31 also needs 19. But 19 and 12, though superficially similar in their youthfulness, are diametrically opposed regarding the elephant in the room. 12 would very much like to have 11, which mostly agrees with 12, so as not to have to knuckle-under to 19 about the elephant. (So would 31.)
But 19 ran against and sort of hates 11, and so cannot sit only with 11. Therefore, 19 would prefer to sit with 12 and pretend to ignore the elephant. In any case, 31 needs 12 as much as it needs 19: 64 – 19 = 45, but 64 – 12 = 52. And 31 + 12 + 11 + the pious 7 gets to exactly 61, but must appoint a speaker.So Lapid may be getting the kind of attention this week that Bennett got most of last month, but he actually has no more power over Netanyahu than Bennett—unless, that is, Lapid is prepared to expand the universe of numbers, which I’ll get back to in a moment.
Yes, Lapid can forget about diplomacy with the Palestinians, where Bennett neutralizes him, and focus on stopping subsidies and military exemptions to haredim, that big issue Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz fumbled last summer. He can say he wants to build more housing—that is, within the Green Line—and pretend Bennett will not want more beyond it, albeit only in settlements requiring “natural growth.” He may gesture toward “electoral reform,” though he is vague about what change will matter.
What Lapid cannot do is avoid this simple choice: Do I move to gain political power, or do I join a Netanyahu government with only my own party?
I know that putting things this way is unconventional. Isn’t joining the government exactly the way Lapid gains power and proves himself a serious leader—doesn’t it mean the Foreign Ministry or the Education Ministry, and more?
This is a terribly rash conclusion.
First, Lapid cannot pretend a reinvigorated Obama administration is not also in the room. He may pretend that Israel can be transferred to Mars for four years. But it can’t: Nobody outside of Israel thinks Palestine is just Israel’s internal problem. And Obama, who’s said 31 doesn’t “understand Israel’s best interests,” is virtually the only friend Israel still has in the world.
Second, the people who voted for Lapid know they need the world. It has been clear for some time that there are, for all the factions, only two political parties in Israel, representing two—let us call them—gestalts: the party of Greater Israel and the party of Global Israel, Jerusalem’s fire versus Tel Aviv’s cool. The election created a virtual tie. Lapid’s voters expect him to hang tough.
The supporters of Greater Israel—people like Bennett, including most of the Likud—believe in the continuing military-imposed integration of “Judea and Samaria.” Lapid cannot sit with such people solo for four years, as the status quo continues to work entirely in their favor, and not become their window dressing or their tool. Their actions, or should I say their inactions, along with their creepy propaganda, will tar him, just as Ariel Sharon’s Likud tarred his father Tommy Lapid’s Shinui Party, whose 15 seats were, for a while, the talk of the 2003 election.
Given the awful history of Jews in the 20th century, it would be tactless to call the 31 + 12 + 11 + 7 “fascist.” So let’s just say they believe in lording over and, if this proves impossible, expelling Palestine’s Arab inhabitants to Jordan. They also believe in a Jewish state defined as special material privileges for legally—that is, religiously and biologically—defined “Jews”; a legal system incorporating halacha; an educational system teaching strident nationalism; a supreme court divested of its power to ruin things in the name of individual rights; and a police force empowered to suppress sedition from “the left.”
You see, the 59 un-Likud (un-Bennett, un-Shas, etc.) seats that Lapid is nominal custodian of, for this month anyway, are actually a kind of fire-break against anti-democratic forces that have been taking Israel into a morally awful and terribly dangerous place. In this context, remember Shinui? Or Dash, or the Center Party, or the rest who thought they could “change things from within”?
Third, and correspondingly, Lapid was polling around 10 seats a month ago. He won 19. But he’s done nothing in the past month to establish himself as a mobilizing force. He is rather Global Israel’s unopened present, a symbol, not a leader, the recipient of projected hopes and feelings of cultural affinity—Rothschild Blvd.’s Chauncey Gardiner. This can’t last.
Lapid has talent and many serious people on his list. He can yet rise to the occasion. How?
Lapid said last night that he is unprepared to create a blocking coalition to deny Netanyahu the prime minister’s job. This, he said, speaking in code, would mean making common cause with Arab parties, and particularly Balad, which he implied is “anti-Zionist”—an arguable point, maybe worse, but let it go.
What Lapid could yet do—actually, has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do—is lay the foundation for a broad-based Israeli Democratic Party, inviting Labor, Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah, Meretz, what’s left of Kadima, and all Arab parties (or public figures) that sign on to basic principles of negotiations with Palestine, entrepreneurial globalism, social democratic approaches to education and infrastructure development, and civil rights-based constitutional reform.
All the leaders of these parties have said, one way or another, that they would welcome the chance to join forces. All have new people who could work well with one another here—Yesh Atid’s Jacob Perry with Labor’s Erel Margalit, for example. (Once, in a moment of grace, I allowed myself to imagine a notional platform for such a party.)
Note well: I am not advocating that Lapid go to the opposition or try to find a prime minister other than Netanyahu. But he should go into the government armed to the teeth. He should organize a block of 45+ members and then offer to join a Netanyahu government. If Livni or Yacimovich or Mofaz or Galon refuse his leadership, they will justifiably become irrelevant.
With that strength, Lapid could negotiate Global Israel’s agenda and not lose credibility if, as a block, the 45+ bolt and force new elections. He could greatly diminish Bennett’s influence, and turn himself into the prime minister-in-waiting. Alternately, he could simply tell Netanyahu to create a government of 61 types even more unwelcome in the world than the last government was and wait for it to fall over Obama's next diplomatic demand, or Shas's next financial one.
Make no mistake: this election was a turning point. As I wrote a few days ago, suggesting a surprise may be in store, this is the first election in which native-born twenty-and-thirty-somethings have become the electoral majority. Unlike their parents, their political identities are less influenced by ideological parties—which were then homes to immigrant resentments—and more by scattered impressions. The country has suddenly become less tribal—and that’s a good thing, because it means the facts of the wider world can penetrate as well as the facts on the ground.
Lapid is the first politician to emerge from this politics and is in any case a portent of things to come. In the days ahead he has to decide if he intends to become Global Israel’s transformational leader or just its passing fancy.