Could Yair Lapid Replace Netanyahu as Israel’s Next Prime Minister?

The former low-brow journalist, part-time actor, amateur boxer, popular columnist, talk-show host and television anchor probably won’t make it. But here’s why he might.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during an event in the southern city of Sderot, April, 2016.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during an event in the southern city of Sderot, April, 2016.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The Israeli political scene is agog at a poll published by Channel 2 News on Tuesday. For the first time since the last election, Netanyahu’s Likud is in second place, with 22 Knesset seats – eight less than it currently holds. Just as astonishing is the identity of the party overtaking it with 24 – Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, doubling its current tally of 12.

What’s incredible is not only that 18 months after his fourth election victory Netanyahu is for the first time lagging in a poll – carried out by veteran pollster Mina Tzemach. But Lapid, whose party lost over a third of its seats in 2015, has made such an incredible comeback. This of course leads to the question whether there is now a real prospect of Lapid becoming prime minister anytime soon.

A poll, however reliable and professional it may be, is just a snapshot of the current public mood. A year and a half after Netanyahu’s fourth election victory is probably enough time for the public to grow tired of him again. But there is no election on the horizon and technically one could take place as far away as late 2019, so this poll is a harbinger of nothing but hype. And yet it’s actually positioning Lapid as a candidate for the highest office. And yet it’s still very unlikely we’ll see him replacing Netanyahu anytime soon. Here’s why.

One poll doesn’t a PM make. An outlier poll can do little more than detect a trend – the public is tiring of Netanyahu and Lapid is looking like the only fresh alternative. But Netanyahu has routinely beaten the polls, which a year and a half ago were giving Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union a small but constant lead over Likud. It ended with a six-seat margin in Netanyahu’s favor. As Shimon Peres, whose rivals called “the prime minister of the polls,” famously said: “A poll is like perfume. Wonderful to smell, but don’t drink it.”

There is no Lapid coalition. Leading the largest party doesn’t guarantee the premiership. Tzipi Livni’s Kadima was larger than Netanyahu’s Likud in 2009, but she failed to cobble together a coalition.

Even if Yesh Atid were to have more MKs than Likud, the polls have yet to detect any significant shift between the main blocs. Netanyahu even in second place is still much more likely to have his “natural coalition” of right-wing and religious parties. The ultra-Orthodox parties will never join a Lapid government, and neither will Netanyahu’s Likud. For a majority, Lapid will need to convince left-wing Meretz and Labor to join a coalition with far-right Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu. It’s hard to see that happening.

Yair Lapid, left, and Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Marc Israel Sellem / Jerusalem Post

He’s no Ehud Olmert

Lapid still isn’t prime ministerial material. The 11 men and one woman who occupied the prime minister’s office all had immeasurably more experience before reaching the top of the pyramid. David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Peres all played pivotal roles before Israel’s establishment and early years. Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon all had served as senior generals. Ehud Olmert had decades of parliamentarian and ministerial experience, as well as two terms as mayor of Israel’s largest city.

Netanyahu, arguably the least experienced of prime ministers before entering office, had at least been a commander in the special forces and a senior diplomat, including ambassador to the United Nations. He also served four years as a deputy minister and another four as opposition leader.

Lapid was a low-brow journalist, part-time actor, amateur boxer, popular columnist, chat-show host and television anchor before joining politics less than five years ago. His successful first campaign propelled him without any preparation to the finance ministry, where his officials ran rings around him, until Netanyahu fired him after only 20 months.

He can point to no significant achievements as a minister or parliamentarian, and nearly all the other potential candidates to be the next prime minister, not to mention the veteran of over a decade currently occupying that office, have much more impressive CVs. Lapid may be the flavor of the month, but when an actual election comes around, few Israelis are going to want an amateur as their leader. They haven’t in the past.

Yesh Atid’s glass ceiling. Twenty-four Knesset seats is the highest the party has ever received in a poll (it received 19 in the actual 2013 election). That’s 20 percent of the electorate and is unlikely to be enough to automatically claim the right to form a coalition, even if no other party wins more. For that Lapid needs to get close to 30, at least, but his appeal outside the Tel Aviv bubble’s secular middle class is limited.

New emerging challengers. The next election will almost certainly see additional players and at least one new party attracting votes on the center-right. A new party might field figures like Gideon Sa’ar, Moshe Ya’alon, Moshe Kahlon and perhaps Gabi Ashkenazi (though he’s also rumored to be considering joining Lapid). All of them are much more experienced than Lapid, so such a party might lure away many Likud and Yesh Atid voters. Lapid is currently the beneficiary of a vacuum on the center-right, but that space will soon be crowded.

Still, even if one poll isn’t much to go on and Likud’s center-right coalition still has a majority, Lapid has been steadily gaining in the polls for over a year now and can’t be counted out as a potential prime minister. A few factors are working in his favor.

One party, one leader

Likud and Labor have never been weaker. The two parties that have ruled Israel for all but three years of its existence are pale shadows of their former selves. Labor has never really recovered from Rabin’s assassination in 1995 and Netanyahu’s shock victory six months later. For two decades it has devoured leader after leader, suffered splits and infighting, and now the three most-likely candidates to be its leader in the next election – Herzog, Shelly Yacimovich and Amir Peretz – are all proven losers.

Likud may be in power but it is no longer much of a party with an ideology and Jabotinskean hadar – national decorum. It’s just a platform for Netanyahu’s reelection.

Kadima proved in 2006 that a middle-ground party with a centrist leader and a hastily put-together ticket of minor celebrities and half-known hacks could decimate the two grand old parties and win power. The conditions for the next election could be very similar as the standing of both Likud and Labor (its rebranding as Zionist Union has been an abject failure) are if anything even lower a decade later. Not that Lapid is in any way the equivalent of Kadima’s founder, Sharon, but Yesh Atid could find itself in the same position.

Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid in the Knesset.Credit: Olivieh Fitoussi

Timing could be on Lapid’s side. Overtaking Likud at this early stage when an election isn’t even on the horizon could mean Yesh Atid has already peaked and the only way is down in the polls. But it also means he has an advantage over the other possible candidates should Netanyahu dramatically weaken or be forced to resign. Sa’ar or Ya’alon or Ashkenazi may on paper be stronger candidates but none have even begun the basic steps necessary to contest an election. If Netanyahu does resign as the result of a corruption indictment, it would almost certainly mean a speedy election campaign. In such a case, time is on Lapid’s side.

Smooth campaigner, strong backers. Unlike parties currently in the coalition whose leaders are ministers with day jobs, and Herzog or whoever else leads Zionist Union, they’ll have to fight bruising primaries first. But Yesh Atid’s constitution gives Lapid absolute control over his party. From now until whenever an election is held, he’s free to run in full campaign mode.

Election campaigning is the only bit of politics he does well (he wasn’t only a failure as a minister, his Knesset attendance record is dismal). But campaigning he does extraordinarily well, and he’s assured sympathetic coverage by one of his former media employers, Channel 2 News, and the full-blown support of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper group, where he was the star columnist. Campaigning is all he has done since Netanyahu fired him in December 2014, and it will be his sole occupation until the next election.

Just not being Netanyahu may be enough. Lapid’s ideology isn’t noticeably different from Netanyahu’s with the exception of state-and-religion issues, on which he has become much less strident of late in his attempt to broaden his appeal to more traditional audiences. But by the next election, assuming Netanyahu runs, he will have been prime minister for a total of 12, perhaps even 13 years. Bibi fatigue will certainly be a factor, and Lapid aims to position himself as the ultimate non-Netanyahu, but one who’s not that far from his positions. This strategy is working in the polls. It’s still a long shot, but it might work in a real election.

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