Three months from the moment Benjamin Netanyahu formed his fifth government and Yair Lapid became leader of the opposition, they have finally had their first real showdown in the Knesset. The backdrop to the debate was the legislation brought by Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which would have prohibited a candidate facing criminal charges from becoming prime minister, and included a speech from both, and then a rebuttal by each. It was a bruising, no-holds barred exchange in which Netanyahu, a supreme political pugilist, expert at creating the terms of reference in every clash, came up against an opponent with excellent media skills of his own.
Netanyahu’s onslaught was three-pronged. He attacked Lapid’s bill (which lost the vote 53-37) as being the antithesis of democracy, in denying the people a vote for their preferred leader reminiscent of Iran’s Guardian Council, which disqualifies candidates in elections. But it was his more personal attacks of Lapid that were more interesting.
One line of attack was classic Bibi – trying to taint Lapid by association with Joint List leader Ayman Odeh. He repeatedly mentioned Lapid and Odeh as partners, but didn’t sound very convinced himself of this line. Lapid, whose positions have been resolutely centrist, is not a classic leftist and Netanyahu didn’t even use the L-word once. He was much more animated when he attacked Lapid’s lack of qualifications to be prime minister. “Without a matriculation certificate, without a BA, you tried to obtain a fake doctorate,” he mocked Lapid, bringing up a 2012 expose in Haaretz which forced Lapid to give up his PhD studies. “You know very little about almost nothing. You are always pretending,” he addressed “Doctor Lapid and Mister Dictatorship.”
It’s hard to avoid the impression that Netanyahu isn’t sure yet how to frame Lapid, partly because he never seriously regarded him as an opponent. Lapid has been in politics for nine years, but until very recently, he served Netanyahu’s purposes by splitting the opposition, undermining the leaders of Labor, Shelly Yachimovich, Yitzhak Herzog and Avi Gabbay and weighing down his former partner in Kahol Lavan, Benny Gantz. Lapid’s centrist party ensured in the 2013 and 2015 elections that Likud became the largest party.
Gantz has now destroyed his own credibility by joining Netanyahu’s coalition, so has Labor leader Amir Peretz. Lapid remains the only leader of a major party on the center-left. Netanyahu has no choice but to take him on. But while Lapid’s inexperience and dilettantism gives Netanyahu ample ammunition against the former chat-show host and columnist, it also creates a dilemma for him. Attacking Lapid with all guns blazing increases his popularity in the anti-Netanyahu camp, where many have had trouble taking Lapid seriously. Lapid, unlike Gantz, Gabbay and Herzog, is also prepared to follow Netanyahu into the mud.
Lapid might not have the prime minister’s economic or security experience, but he can rival his prowess at media manipulation. He’s spent nearly as long as Netanyahu in the limelight and has had everything written about him in the gossip columns. Netanyahu’s previous rivals were powerless against his ability to dominate the news cycle and dictate the issues of the day. Lapid was blunt in his speech, when he said that “Netanyahu wants the campaign to be about the issues of corruption because he doesn’t want it to be about 30,000 businesses that have closed because of your failing management.”
Lapid was especially scathing on Netanyahu’s earlier boasts that “leaders from around the world call me up” to ask how Israel is handling the coronavirus – “Jacinda Adern, a 40-year-old with a baby, managed it better than you. Angela Merkel handled it better than you. Emmanuel Macron handled it better than you. Why don’t you once call them up to ask how it’s done right.”
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It’s still unclear whether Israel will have yet another election in 2020 or it will be delayed, but both rivals are aiming for what they see as their opponent’s weakest spot – their competence. Netanyahu thinks he can portray Lapid as a man without the experience to lead Israel. Lapid believes Israelis no longer trust Netanyahu, on trial and fighting for his personal freedom, to manage the country’s affairs. Pundits talk of Lapid’s “glass ceiling” of 20 Knesset seats-worth of voters. So far, that’s borne out by election results and polls. But if the competence and credibility of either rival become the main issue, Netanyahu may be handing Lapid a critical opportunity to break that ceiling.