Analysis

The Real Bombshell of Netanyahu's Bribery Affair: Challenger Yair Lapid

The politician who revealed to be central in police investigations of Netanyahu stands as the prime minister's strongest competition

Head of political party Yesh Atid speaking at a party meeting in Jerusalem on February 13, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Without hazarding a foolish prediction, the most intriguing political aspect of the upheaval Tuesday night is the making of Benjamin Netanyahu’s heir as prime minister.

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Given the silence of the right wing after the police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for corruption, and the knee-jerk defense of the prime minister by his minions, the dramatic role of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid is of mounting importance.

With their recommendations, the police revealed that Lapid was central to the bribery allegations against Netanyahu in the “lavish gifts” case. The prime minister exhorted Lapid, as finance minister at the time, to promote tax-breaks rules that would have benefited the Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, who is suspected of giving Netanyahu gifts for something in return. Lapid blocked the attempt.

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This revelation is no mere sensationalist headline, or just one more stunning detail from the Netanyahu investigation. It’s a symbolic fact that will shape the next election, pitting Israel’s two most popular politicians against each other: the prime minister and the ostensible opposition leader who testified against him.

After taking over the battle against the Polish law that denies Poland's part in the Holocaust, and exposing ThyssenKrupp's sale of submarines to Egypt in apparent contradiction to its agreement with Israel, Lapid is the most serious alternative to Netanyahu.

Once upon a time, Israelis could be divided into two camps: the peace camp and the nationalist camp. (Back then, supporting the extending of Israeli law to Israeli academic institutions in the occupied territories – which Yesh Atid did this week – would have been considered an ideological betrayal.) But today, Israelis can be divided into Netanyahu supporters and opponents, and Lapid is head of the opposition camp, a camp that detests the prime minister’s lifestyle and manner and wants them to stop.

Yet even Lapid couldn’t have put things better than the police did Tuesday evening, stating, “The prime minister contacted people at the Finance Ministry on the matter, but the Finance people blocked the issue, explaining that the benefit did not comply with the national interest or the protection of the public treasury.” Noticing Lapid’s potential, the minister of flattery Miri Regev suggested he join the “guillotine demonstrators” on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard.

Meanwhile, the camp of Netanyahu supporters has taken a blow, but not a mortal one. Prominent people on the right and in the governing coalition were in shock despite the Bibi-ish attempts to preempt them with mutterings about the “game being fixed.” But Netanyahu loyalists still steadfastly reject the inevitable translation of cigars and champagne into a million-plus shekels, a mind-boggling sum topping $280,000. And absent graphic representation of corruption that hadn’t been known before, they can maintain their state of denial.

After some months of aggressive initiatives, including the “police-muzzling law,” Netanyahu has resumed the position of victim; leaders on the right who may see themselves as prime minister material don’t have the incentive now to out themselves as such. In the long run, Tuesday’s recommendations by the police are an important step in Netanyahu’s path from politics. But for the time being, the race is between Lapid and Netanyahu.