Analysis |

Fully Loaded and Fed Up, Yesh Atid's Number Two Is Going to War With His Boss

Ofer Shelah, the Israeli opposition party's perennial second string, has no illusions about the prospect of holding primary vote – but he’s showing party leader Lapid a future with internal opposition

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Ofer Shelah at the coronavirus committee at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 14, 2020.
Ofer Shelah at the coronavirus committee at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 14, 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman / Knesset Spokesperson
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The figure that burst forth Wednesday evening on Israeli television screens was angry, disappointed and also perhaps bitter. For the past eight years, Ofer Shelah has been at Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s side and in his shadow, in a party that from beginning to end is entirely of Lapid’s creation. For the past eight years, we have gotten used to seeing Shelah as number two – nothing more than a bald silhouette standing by. He has been the person whispering in the leader’s ear, his closest adviser, his best friend. But all that is now a thing of the past.

Shelah raised the issue of running against Lapid for the party’s leadership on Monday. The reaction was unclear. Shelah waited for 48 hours. His cellphone didn’t ring, so he tweeted his intentions. Needless to say, no one saw it coming.

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The two have had dozens of frank conversations in recent years. Particularly in recent months, since the party's split with Kahol Lavan. Shelah had thought, for example, that the age-old veto of cooperation with the largely Arab Joint List had to end. Lapid went along with him on the issue.

Shelah had also thought, and still does, that his boss’ anti-ultra-Orthodox approach had long run its course, not only in terms of its merit but also politically, and electorally. We will never be able to form a government as long as this veto exists, Shelah says. And no one will deny that the target of the Haredi boycott is personal – against Lapid – and not against his party.

How, Shelah wonders, is it that in our current situation, with the coronavirus running rampant, the economy in tatters, resignations of key people at the Finance Ministry and Likud losing 12 Knesset seats in a month according to the polls, that nothing is falling into Yesh Atid’s lap? How the hell, Shelah asks, does Naftali Bennett beat Lapid on the question of fitness as prime minister? Something’s not working. Lapid, he says, is creating a glass ceiling for us. He is a spent force. We are a spent force.

Over the past year, we were like a hamster on a wheel, he says, in partnership with Kahol Lavan, forced into strange constraints. Now, after we have set ourselves free, it is time to demonstrate awareness, vitality. “The excellent team,” he says, barely exists in the media in the leader’s shadow. Lapid is the sun, the moon and the stars. “It won’t be that way with me,” he declares.

When Shelah talks about frustration on the team, he’s talking mainly about himself. Unlike Lapid, he has no feelings of inferiority. Both are former journalists, articulate and intelligent. The two have the same mileage in politics (Lapid was finance minister for a year and eight months). Now it’s Shelah’s turn to try his luck.

He has no illusions that the omnipotent chairman of a party without party institutions would accede to his request for primaries. Without a public awakening, it won’t happen. His hope is that other Yesh Atid lawmakers would express support for the cause, not necessarily for him. The prospects for that are weak. Anyone who says anything will have no future in Yesh Atid. His other hope is that outsiders would also seek to run as party leader. In the face of such a request, Lapid wouldn’t be able to firmly refuse, because that would make him look weak.

Any media adviser would say that Shelah’s demand is justified, at least from the public standpoint. Primaries for the head of the party, and maybe also for Yesh Atid’s Knesset slate, will spark interest, encourage people to become party members, and create a healthy buzz. On the other hand, they would also raise concern on Lapid’s part over developments that could endanger the essence of the party. One cannot call such concerns baseless.

Whether or not it happens, as of Wednesday, Lapid will have to get used to an unfamiliar situation – a “historic” situation as they say nowadays – of effective and focused internal opposition posed by his number two. Shelah won’t make do with the single bullet that he fired Wednesday. He is fully loaded and fed up.

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