A New Challenger Stirs Up Israel’s 'One-man' Opposition Party

Long frustrated with Yesh Atid’s incoherent platform, Ofer Shelah announced his intention to challenge Yair Lapid in party primaries

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Ofer Shelah outside the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 6, 2020.
Ofer Shelah outside the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 6, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Israel’s main opposition party Yesh Atid may be on the verge of leadership change as Chairman Yair Lapid faces a potential challenger – his no. 2, Ofer Shelah.

Shelah, who is more left-wing and considered the brains behind Lapid, believes the party has exhausted itself in its current configuration and must change if it wishes to rule. He believes the party has been flip-flopping on its platform and needs to define what exactly it represents and where it is headed.

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In the last elections, the party was partnered with Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan but split to remain in the opposition when Gantz signed a coalition deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  

Yesh Atid often draws criticism for being a “dictatorship” or a one-man party. Last November, Lapid’s term as party leader was extended through the 25th Knesset, two past the current body. It was the third time that Lapid extended his rule since founding the party in 2012.

Yair Lapid speaking in the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 13, 2020.Credit: Adina Waldman / Knesset Spokesperson's Office

Shelah's calls to Lapid to hold primaries were met with delays, leading him to announce his intention on social media on Wednesday.

In an interview with Israel's Channel 13 News on Wednesday evening, Shelah acknowledged that Lapid founded Yesh Atid, but quipped that Lapid was not the "registered owner" of the party. "There's a group that’s been going for eight years at this point and that's responsible for Yesh Atid's accomplishments." But that's not publicly reflected in the party, Shelah said, in part because of how the party is run.

There are many other excellent people in the party, he said, but when Lapid declares himself the party leader until the 25th Knesset, that group of people "lose their luster." Shelah denied that his call for internal party elections was a step towards a shift to a left-wing party.

He expressed the desire "to lead the center-left bloc in the next election" He said he assumed that he would have been welcomed with open arms by the Labor Party or Meretz, in the center-left bloc, but "I went to Yesh Atid because I believed that the governing alternative needed to grow out of it," but he added that "at the moment, it can't grow out of it."

Shelah and Lapid are fond of each other, but in recent years a number of differences have emerged. Shelah did not favor joining Benny Gantz, and did not conceal his disdain for Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi or his lack of appreciation for fellow slate member, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Lapid, for his part, reacted somewhat bitterly to the challenge, but public pressure could force him to accept. He may be scarred by his father Yosef Lapid’s political adventure – a 15-seat faction that went out with a whimper.

This challenge may present an intriguing test for Yesh Atid: Is this a political party, or a platform wrapped around Yair Lapid? Will the primaries be held with true contenders? Could Lapid lose?

Political analysts always say a democracy’s true test lies in transferring power after elections. It happens smoothly in democracies, not so much in dictatorships. Though the day is still far off, one could only imagine the sight of Lapid handing over his one-man show to someone else.

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