Yair Lapid probably never imagined that by the beginning of the first full winter session of the 19th Knesset, which is less than a year old, his party would have lost more than half its constituency. He could never have dreamed that in such a short time, he would go from being a great promise to a resounding disappointment. Or that he, yes he who sees himself as a prime minister-in-waiting and the white knight of the middle class, would have taken a free fall to the bottom of the list in every possible realm in which elected Israeli leaders are judged. He could never have known that at this point in the political cycle, he would have become a laughingstock among fellow ministers and a target for poisoned-tipped verbal barbs by members of his own parliamentary faction.
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The finance minister and Yesh Atid leader was in Washington a week ago. The Americans received him politely and respectfully, as is their wont. He later told people that his interlocutors there told him they see him as “the next thing.” Right now, he looks more like the next thing to find its place on the trash heap of Israeli politics. Public disillusionment is sometimes late in arriving, but even if it tarries, it will show up, and its visit will be cruel and definitive: You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
In advance of the next elections, whenever those may be, Lapid will be seen as someone who betrayed his voters and zigzagged, embarrassed and was embarrassed. The latest instance of this took place this week, in the Knesset plenum, when the minister delivered a speech that radiated panic and was factually wrong, in which he tried to link the state of the natural-gas industry in Israel to the conduct of the opposition.
In a poll conducted for Haaretz this week by the Dialog Institute, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, Lapid is rated as the most
disappointing politician, by a large margin over other party leaders − whether in the coalition or the opposition. Levels of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with his performance as finance minister recall those of the then-defense minister, Amir Peretz, after the Second Lebanon War.
Ditto the Yesh Atid chairman’s degree of suitability to become prime minister, an eventuality that was, in his eyes, just a matter of time and nothing else. The proportion today of people who think Lapid is suitable for that high office borders on that of statistical error. It’s like the proportion of fat in a container of cottage cheese purchased by those who are watching their weight.
And the Knesset seats − yes, the seats. In terms of public support, Yesh Atid is no longer the second-largest party after Likud. Nor the third largest. Not even the fourth, and as it turns out, not the fifth either. A mere 10 seats, like Shas, are what Israeli voters would give it if Knesset elections were to be held today.
The real state of Lapid’s party is even worse. If elections were held today, there is no way it would achieve a double-digit number of seats. Folks tell pollsters, out of habit, the name of the party they voted for in the last election, without realizing that they and the party may no longer be an item. At the ballot box, on judgment day, the hand can easily wander to a different voting slip.
The trend today is to abandon Yesh Atid. A distinct sign of this can be seen in the municipal elections that will be held next week. Six months ago, hundreds of candidates for local authorities clamored at the party’s door, seeking to represent it with pride. Within two months, however, these masses began to flee Yesh Atid. They don’t want to be identified with it or its leader. The local activists and politicos who are down in the trenches more than others, and hear the voice of the people, realize that this is a losing proposition.
Meanwhile, after he was eulogized, in these pages as well, Benjamin Netanyahu is − according to this week’s Haaretz-Dialog poll − returning to where he was a year ago, at the start of the election campaign: unrivaled when it comes to the question of suitability to be prime minister. We wrote at the time that Netanyahu was being outmaneuvered by the political rookie Lapid, but now it is clear that the premier was the one doing the maneuvering. Lapid is up to his neck in painful budget cuts, while Netanyahu is floating about in the lofty realms of global statesmanship.
The sidelining of so-called social matters in favor of dealing with the issues of Iran, Syria, security, and the negotiations with the Palestinians − this works to Netanyahu’s benefit. A majority of the public now gives him a positive rating for his firm handling of the Iranian question.
Meanwhile, in the left-center camp, an interesting competition is developing between Shelly Yacimovich and Lapid in their attempts to brandish the diplomatic flag, the banner of peace and moderation. Lapid, as was written here last week, is steadily breaking leftward, in search of new voters. Yacimovich is not far behind. Her speech in the Knesset plenum Wednesday, during the session marking the 18th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, was largely political and devoted to Rabin the peacemaker. The last time she gave a speech at the memorial event, she was still “social-minded” and Rabin was described by her as such, as well.
Thank goodness there is enough Rabin to go around, depending on the political needs of the moment.
Meretz’s glory days
During the election campaign last winter, Lapid and Yacimovich fled from anything political as one flees from fire. He talked civic and social, she talked social and civic − and both of them shamelessly winked at the right. Now he does not really have the ability to go on presenting himself as the savior of the middle class without their stoning him with thousands of mocking posts online. She, to her misfortune, can’t draw to her party the stream of voters abandoning Yesh Atid, after having turned her back in the election on all the “peace-shmeace” nonsense, and missing out on four or five seats as a result.
The one who is racking up Lapid’s points is the head of Meretz, MK Zahava Gal-On, from six seats in the current Knesset to 12 projected seats in the current Haaretz-Dialog poll. Based on that statistic, one could say that since the election, every month and a half or thereabouts Meretz has gained the equivalent of another seat. The frustrated leftists who pinned their hopes on Lapid or Yacimovich are looking for a decent home, one that does not toady and does not brawl and does not deny and keeps its promises.
That home is Meretz, and the undisputed house mother is Gal-On. Twelve seats are what this party had at its peak, in 1992, under Shulamit Aloni’s leadership. Today, under her ultimate substitute, and not only in terms of gender − Meretz is returning to its glory days. In the poll before you, two whole Knesset seats trickle over to it from Yesh Atid, and these are joined by another seat and a half or so from Labor (which gets two seats from Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, who also steals her modest pound of flesh from Yesh Atid).
Meretz is not only the refuge of the disappointed. It is the party whose voter loyalty is the highest. Who would have believed that “little” Meretz, nearly wiped off the map in the 2009 election, would be positioned today as the fourth most popular party in the Knesset, after Likud-Beiteinu, Labor and Habayit Hayehudi? And above Yesh Atid?
On Tuesday morning, MK Aryeh Deri gave an interview to the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama on the subject of the mayoral election in Jerusalem. Deri thought, apparently, that only Haredim listen to that station. The chairman of Shas revealed that a secret deal had been worked out between the Haredim and the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, MK Avigdor Lieberman: All of these people, all their factions, camps and courts, will back the accountant from Givatayim, Moshe Leon, for mayor. In return, Lieberman, who virtually invented Leon, will work to dismantle Netanyahu’s coalition and bring the Haredim into it in place of Messrs. Lapid & Bennett.
“Avigdor Lieberman is a central axis in this coalition. The coalition cannot be dismantled without [the involvement of] Lieberman,” Deri maintained.
Those comments had barely been uttered when the campaign headquarters of the incumbent, Nir Barkat, disseminated them to all the reporters covering the Jerusalem election. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. As if it were not enough that Likud voters in the capital are split between Leon, the official candidate of Likud-Beiteinu, and Barkat − along comes Deri and tells Leon’s supporters that their vote is meant to generate a major political and coalition crisis, and shake the branch on which the government is sitting.
As if it wasn’t already bad enough that Leon’s candidacy smacked of shady deals from the get-go, considering his distinguished handlers − now Deri comes along and compounds things. The shockwave his interview created among the Likud leadership, which had mostly enlisted to endorse Leon, and on the
Likud street in Jerusalem, was tremendous. Likud ministers who attend Leon’s campaign gatherings felt like they had been shot in the head.
Not to mention Netanyahu’s reaction to all this. From his standpoint, this is the culmination of all fears. Today, it is already obvious to anyone with eyes in his head that Deri’s backing of Leon constitutes homegrown strategic damage par excellence. Deri is hated by the national-religious public in Jerusalem, reviled by quite a few in Likud and unpopular in general. Any identification between him and a mayoral candidate, certainly in the context of undermining the stability of the government, only scares away voters.
Immediately after the interview, Lieberman and Deri spoke on the phone. The office of Yisrael Beiteinu stated, in response to a question from Haaretz, that Lieberman asked Deri to phrase his words more clearly in future interviews so there can be no “misunderstandings.” Diplomatic and refined wording, which no doubt conceals what must have been an extremely harsh conversation between the two.
“I did not say there is a deal between us and ‘Yvet’ [Lieberman’s nickname],” Deri told me on the evening of stormy Tuesday. “I said that I hope this will be the outcome of our enlistment on Leon’s behalf. And I said that if all the Haredi factions are incapable of keeping promises, they should not expect Lieberman to work to bring us into the government.”
Well, that sounds like a deal to me.
“Look, I guarantee you: Yvet would not have run Leon for mayor if he had not previously received a promise and a commitment from all the heads of the Haredi parties, who represent all the factions, for their categorical support. He came to me only after this bipartisan support had been promised to him. If he had come a few days later, we would have signed with Barkat already.”
What are you saying? So actually Barkat is not such a bad candidate, as far as you’re concerned?
“When we negotiated with him, he was the sole candidate. So who would we go with? With [Meretz’s] Pepe Alalu? We were Barkat’s best partners in the coalition. And then Lieberman came to me with Leon. I went to Rav Ovadia and he said unequivocally: Leon is a good candidate. God-fearing, with a skullcap, of Mizrahi origins. [Ovadia] also knew his father. So we went with him, even though we were offered twice as much from Barkat.”
What’s happening on the Haredi street? Why isn’t there total support for Leon?
“Barkat has Haredi advisers. They do a good job. They succeeded in working within the Lithuanian Haredi public and crumbling the unified front. They managed to cause the Lithuanians to field a candidate, Haim Epstein, who is taking thousands of votes away from Leon. Barkat also has understandings with the Gur Hasidim. Nu, does anyone really think that comes for free?”
Aside from the fact that Leon is Mizrahi and wears a skullcap, what made him in Rabbi Yosef’s eyes more suitable to run the city?
Deri, perhaps the most articulate and quick-tongued of politicians, had difficulty answering that question. In the end he replied thus: “The rabbi was very disappointed in Barkat. Very disappointed. He did not enjoy satisfaction from him on issues that matter to us, such as matters concerning the rabbinate in the city or our educational institutions.”