Analysis |

Gaza Op Halted Netanyahu’s Momentum, but It Won’t Help Lapid Make Electoral Inroads

The prime minister may have conducted a successful campaign against Islamic Jihad, but civilian deaths in Gaza will deter Arabs from voting for him

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Tel Aviv, on Sunday.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Tel Aviv, on Sunday.Credit: Haim Tsach / GPO
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The latest round of fighting in the Gaza Strip, which is regarded by Israelis as having been an operational and managerial success (so long as you ignore the truth, which is that the problem of Gaza hasn’t been solved at all) can be expected to improve Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s standing among voters who already support him. But those of the soft right, or simply people that inhabit the center and fear Arabs in a general way and are concerned about Lapid’s lack of personal diplomatic and security experience, aren’t likely to be swayed.

Days of war: Understanding this weekend's Israel-Gaza flare-up

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Lapid has proven that he knows how to initiate, lead and manage an army operation, and even cooperate, with all the important figures involved, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, for whom he has no great liking. In doing so, he brought to a screeching halt the momentum that the Netanyahu camp had been enjoying in the days prior to the fighting. It undercuts the election campaign theme Likud had in the works, mocking Lapid for his lack of experience and asking voters, “What will happen when Lapid answers the red phone.” (What will happen? The answer is that he will wage a war better than Netanyahu ever did.)

The campaign slogan “the left will sell us out to ISIS” (do you recall the nasty one Netanyahu ran against Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog in 2015?) won’t work either. Conventional Israeli wisdom today holds that Lapid played the war well: He misled the enemy, initiated the conflict, went on the attack and wound up the whole business before the Israeli home front was seriously exposed to the horrors of rocket attacks.

Lapid has put paid to the conventional wisdom that holds that national security issues always favor the right. The bottom line is Netanyahu’s efforts to contrast himself as “Mr. Security” against the hapless klutz now sitting in the prime minister’s office, just like his claim to be in a “different league” from the diplomatic novice that is Lapid regarding relations with Russia, haven’t stood the test of reality.

Nevertheless, the chances of Lapid forming a coalition remain challenging if not – to use a simpler and more bleak term – poor. It’s not as if anyone was assuming that the Joint List would be a pillar of a future Lapid-led government, but after the war it’s clear that large numbers of Palestinians in Israel won’t help form a government headed by a man who brilliantly led an operation that included killing children in Gaza.

Whether it expresses itself in especially low voter turnout (as happened in 2001, when Arab voters stayed home and enabled Ariel Sharon to defeat Ehud Barak) or whether it means stronger support for the Joint List, which won’t back either of the two blocs, Arabs won’t be coming to Lapid’s aid.

Lapid and Defense Minister Gantz proved they can oversee the operation without mutual tension.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Therefore, the best scenario Lapid can hope for is continued parity between the Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs followed by a sixth round of elections. Meanwhile, he stays on as caretaker prime minister and hopes that the stars adjust themselves in his favor, for example, by the ultra-Orthodox parties finally getting fed up with sitting in the opposition for the sake of loyalty to Netanyahu. Lapid can also hope that the wish for a functional and stable government that can live out its term will continue rising in the scale of voter priorities and that their loyalty to one camp or another becomes less rigid.

Gantz has also seen his position strengthened by the fighting. But in contrast to Lapid and Gantz’s own remarks, the defense minister may consider a scenario (which is being promoted by powerful political forces) in which he serves in a government with Netanyahu, on condition that he is prime minister first in a rotation agreement. There are many who hope that Gantz can bring other parties from the anyone-but-Bibi camp with him. Is that realistic? It’s certainly more so than a scenario where Lapid teams up with Netanyahu.

Without a doubt, Netanyahu has sustained a blow over the last few days. Nevertheless, it’s by no means certain that Lapid emerged significantly stronger from it.

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