Using Obama's Tactics and Netanyahu's Rhetoric, Lapid Aims to Take Israel by Storm

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Yair Lapid at a party event in Nahariya.
Yair Lapid at a party event in Nahariya, July, 2016.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Ofra Edelman
Ofra Edelman
Ofra Edelman
Ofra Edelman

He made his name as a media personality and talk-show host, served as a presenter for a major bank, and even anchored the main Friday night news program on Channel 2. But Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) chairman Yair Lapid, 52, now poses a greater threat than any other politician to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his party getting over 20 Knesset seats in the latest surveys, which would make them the country’s largest party. Lapid based his first election campaign in early 2013 – which ended up turning his new party into Israel’s second largest – on an emphatically secular agenda, attacks against the ultra-Orthodox parties, and deliberate vagueness concerning his views on peace and security.

But since then Lapid has been in pursuit of Israel’s prevailing political winds. He coined the term “Zoabis” for Arab MKs, based on the name of the provocative lawmaker Haneen Zoabi; told convicted Shas chairman Arye Dery that he would rehabilitate him; and made sure to attack the left-wing organizations Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem to prove to the public that the party he leads is not a left-wing one, God forbid.

Now Lapid, whose party was weakened significantly in the last election and didn’t join Netanyahu’s coalition, is trying to present a new façade to the public – that of the unifier, the fixer of the rifts in Israeli society – all the way to the premiership.

“We need a different Israeli dialogue, respectful, not strident, which will advance us instead of moving us backward,” said Lapid last month. “Otherwise people who have turned hatred into their language will dominate the public space. Israeli society expects its political leadership not to speak like online provocateurs.” Five days later he called a B’Tselem report “hate propaganda.”

Lapid at a party event in Rishon Letzion, September, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

This is the 2016 version of Lapid. Attacking and relenting, stinging and stroking, making declarations and contradicting himself. After basing two election campaigns on rivalry with the ultra-Orthodox parties, he realized that to become prime minister he had to change his tone towards them. Since then he has been conciliatory, emphasizing his connection to religion, and making sure to remain in the warm bosom of the mainstream – to align himself with the opinion of the masses (even the belligerents among them), to walk between the drops with statements everyone can agree on to some degree, to play on emotions and patriotic sentiment, and to season his words with a dollop of militarism and mentions of the Holocaust.

In that way he moves deceptively in the space between cynicism and Zionism, between moralism and the double standard: “The tactic was to engage as much as possible with unifying issues as compared to divisive ones,” Yesh Atid’s MK Yaakov Perry acknowledged. “It turns out, at least according to the surveys, that the public likes and appreciates that.”

These are good times for Yesh Atid and its leader. About three weeks ago the party held an event for Rosh Hashanah in Rishon Letzion. But based on the forecasts of 24-27 seats, it was more like the launching of an election campaign. “Wow, look who’s coming!” cried the audience, and former MK Boaz Toporovsky declared: “I am proud and honored to invite the next prime minister of the State of Israel, MK Yair Lapid!!!’” The atmosphere was euphoric. “In the next survey it will already be 30,” predicted an activist in the audience.

They worked hard to reach this moment. In recent months Lapid and party members have showed up weekly at salon meetings all over the country and devoted their efforts to drawing supporters from the right. Occasionally Lapid held a large gathering of residents in one of the cities on the periphery, mainly those that had a high percentage of Likud voters in the last election. In recent months Haaretz attended several of Lapid’s gatherings and Yesh Atid activities in the field to see how the party is trying to pave its way from the opposition to the government, and to position Lapid as a likely candidate for prime minister.

I, my father and Menachem Begin

There were 12 Israeli flags on the wall of the community center in Kiryat Gat. The loudspeakers were playing Israeli classics. Unlike his regular uniform at election gatherings in 2013, a black button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, this time Lapid appeared in a black suit, white shirt and blue tie. This is Lapid the former minister and designated prime minister. You have to dress the part.

He began, as usual, with a personal anecdote to create a sense of intimacy. “For years I used to ask: What is Israeli in your opinion? On the way here I had an answer: I phoned my mother and she spoke for 25 minutes about the fact that I didn’t call yesterday.” The audience laughed.

Lapid and Yesh Atid party members in Jerusalem, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

He opened his gathering in Nahariya with a story about his son in the Tank Corps, stationed “in a tank opposite Hamas,” and about his surprising engagement at age 20. “Welcome to the Georgian community,” called out someone from the audience.

While laying out his seven-point program for Israel’s future, Lapid makes sure to explain, employing every possible rhetorical device, that he is not a leftist. At every opportunity he mentions Menachem Begin, who led Likud to the historic mahapach, upheaval, in 1977. Mentioning Begin among Likud voters is like mentioning Ronald Reagan among Republicans.

“I come from a home that worshipped Menachem Begin,” he said in Kiryat Gat. In an interview on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet he said, “People don’t remember that my father was a Begin man. That’s what I grew up on, those are the stickers I distributed on the streets in 1981, it was Begin and Mahal (the Likud party ballot).” In Kiryat Gat, when he wanted to explain why his party is built around him and doesn’t hold primaries, he once again pulled out Begin, saying, “Begin didn’t have primaries most of the time either, because they were a young party.” In Migdal Ha’emek he said, “They built Likud around Menachem Begin too, I was present at that story. One of his first steps was to appoint my father the director general of the Broadcasting Authority.”

His father, Tommy Lapid, the media personality who late in life entered politics and served as a minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, is also a recurring motif in his speeches. Through his father he positions himself in the Israeli narrative and talks about the Holocaust and revival. “My father didn’t come from the ghetto by ship to live in a binational state,” he said in Nahariya, explaining why Israel has to separate from the Palestinians. “My father came here – not to [Tel Aviv’s] Azrieli towers, but to the Tower of David,” he said in Kiryat Gat about why “Jerusalem will remain ours forever and ever.”

And when someone in the audience dared to raise the possibility of merging with the Labor Party, he said outright: “There’s no chance that we’ll merge with Labor. Labor is left and we aren’t left.” He won’t be heard saying with the same passion that Yesh Atid is not a right-wing party.

To show the audience how far he is from being a leftist and the difference between Yesh Atid and the Labor Party, he said about ruling over the Palestinians: “That’s not occupation, we aren’t occupiers, this is our country, even if we decide to evacuate it, it’s not because it’s theirs – this is the place where Isaiah and Jeremiah walked.” A party activist, hearing that quote, said he was surprised, telling Haaretz, “I think you’re confusing us with Bezalel Smotrich [of the hardline right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party].”

Will he divide Jerusalem or not?

Lapid is trying to get everyone to like him, which is why he sometimes contradicts himself. At the meeting in Nahariya a woman in the audience stood up and said: “I agree with almost everything you said, but there was one thing that I strongly objected to – when you said ‘united Jerusalem,’” and asked him to explain what he meant.

He replied: “I’ll say something clear and something vague. The Palestinians have to understand that we’re not giving in. The big mistake of the left in negotiations is that they take a microphone and says what they’re willing to give up. In the Middle East you have to say ‘They won’t get anything,’ and then conduct negotiations.” All that was missing was a wink.

Lapid visiting in Sweden, August, 2016.Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand, AFP

So would Lapid divide Jerusalem or not? What did he think before political considerations guided his statements? In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in May 2008, he said: “The biggest tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that everyone knows how it will end. We’ll divide the territory, Israel will return most of the West Bank, and the Palestinian flag will fly over public buildings in East Jerusalem. The only question without an answer is how many people will have to die on the way. We’ll fight the extremists on both sides, including our own extremists, the settlers.”

That didn’t prevent him from saying after a tour in the City of David last June that the place is “proof of the fact that destruction is always temporary and construction is eternal.” When at the Rosh Hashanah gathering in Rishon Letzion he repeated his call for a united Jerusalem, one of the activists in the audience said: “That’s a problematic statement.”

Said Perry: “There’s no question that the public is moving from the center to the right, and we’re positioning ourselves as a centrist party that in the end will have to provide answers to the public’s concerns.” He says that if possible, an Israeli consensus must be reached. “There are things that are impossible and there are things in which it’s possible to be more centrist and to satisfy the desires of as many people as possible.”

To sum that up in the words of Lapid himself in Kiryat Gat: “Politicians are very sensitive to what gets them elected.”

But with all the talk about unity and love, when Lapid talks about left-wing organizations one hears a different message. In an attempt to shake off the left and to present the center as the high road, he has been engaged for months in a campaign of delegitimizing Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem.

“We’re not on the left. I respect the left, not the radical left of Breaking the Silence, they are really Jew-haters,” he said in January in an interview with the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon. “Breaking the Silence and those who danced at a wedding with knives are one and the same.” Thus, discharged soldiers who work against the occupation are equal in his eyes to the young people who celebrated the death by arson of the infant Ali Dawabshe and his parents.

“Our choices are not between Breaking the Silence and the hilltop youth,” he wrote in an attempt to create an imaginary balance between “extremists on both sides” – those who set fire to schools and those who lecture about Israel’s domination of the Palestinians. And all when in that selfsame interview he spoke about how he has become aware of the need for a unifying rather than a divisive approach.

In his most recent Facebook post dealing with the B’Tselem report about Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, he attacked the NGO’s director, Hagai El-Ad, calling the report “an inciting article. A biased, one-sided article of a radical left-wing organization, which has no problem with lying.”

Lapid with group of ambassadors at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market following an attack in June, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The cardinal, unforgivable sin of both organizations, in Lapid’s opinion, is that they are washing Israel’s dirty laundry abroad.

“There I’ll never speak against the government,” he is careful to say, as if there is no global media and his statements in Hebrew against the Israeli government cannot be translated.

At his gatherings Lapid tries to foster a personal connection with the audience. He asks the name of every person who turns to him and then uses the name in his replies like an experienced salesman. He told Rakefet from Kfar Baruch that all she has to do is recruit another five supporters, because “Obama won by means of Rakefets who brought other Rakefets.”

The Obama way

In recent months, the party began to prepare for the general elections. It has established municipal headquarters and began extensive field work. Two hours before Lapid's Rosh Hashana speech in Rishon Letzion, the party held an event for leading party members from central Israel. Similar events were held in the past weeks in Be'er Sheva, Carmiel and Ramle, in which the party presented its strategy for the near future.

In the meeting, local party leaders were presented with the results of a research into Barack Obama's campaign, which should that local field work in certain areas had more influence on voters than campaign ads. Therefore, Yesh Atid decided to run a door-to-door campaign.

In party events, Lapid tells the members that research has shown that voters were mostly convinced by "people like them," and such field work could help gain supports.

"In your phone, you have hundreds of 'people like us,' Lapid tells a supporter in Nahariya. "Together, you and I can win the elections."

Another front is technological. The party is debating whether to use new software to collect contacts and map both supporters and potential supporters. Then, Yesh Atid could use the data to mobilize supporters or target potential supporters with personalized messages, email and texts and invite them for meetings. Similar software was used by the V-15 group that tried to replace Netanyahu in the elections, who since then is trying to promote legislation against it.

Remembering Netanyahu’s dignity

Lapid in the southern city of Sderot, near the border with Gaza, April 2016.Credit: David Weil

But the path to the premiership doesn’t end with living-room gatherings. To reach his goal, Lapid is trying to position himself as a player on the grown-ups’ playing field. That’s why he makes sure to be interviewed on security issues and to mention his past in the cabinet and in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and invests a significant amount of time on visits abroad as a self-appointed foreign minister, and in selling himself as the No. 1 Israeli “information minister.”

In recent months he has organized demonstrations in support of Israel in Stockholm and Geneva, sent letters of reprimand to Unesco and the World Health Organization, written articles in the American press, met with Republican senators and Democratic congressmen, and claimed that it was he who deserves the credit for getting BDS ads removed from public sites in London. As part of his preoccupation with diplomatic and security issues, Lapid invited a group of ambassadors to Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market, following the June 8 terror attack there, to give them “a survey of how Israel deals with the wave of terror and the security situation.” The media outlets were invited to his photo-op with the foreign diplomats. And when they stood together in front of the cameras, suffocating in their hot suits under the blazing June sun, Lapid said he would show the ambassadors “that there are two cultures here – one that loves life and has a lively democracy and people who want only to live, and another culture that celebrates death, destruction and terror attacks.”

Netanyahu couldn’t have said it better. Afterwards, around a table at the market, Lapid provided the ambassadors with bloody descriptions of the event, accompanied by video clips.

The use of Netanyahu’s rhetorical mannerisms (incitement against the left, mentions of the Holocaust and disparagement of the media) is only one way Lapid is trying to win over Likud supporters. As a politician who wants to inherit Likud’s most loyal voters, he is very careful about Netanyahu’s dignity. The toughest he said about the premier in his gatherings was that “in 2016 Israel doesn’t need prime ministers from 1996.” Netanyahu, recalling his days in the opposition, would not have been impressed.

Now, in light of reports about MK Tzipi Livni’s (Zionist Union) attempts to form a new center-left bloc, Lapid is trying to exploit the momentum of the surveys to establish his position as Netanyahu’s leading challenger. With all the euphoria among his followers, he knows that even according to the most optimistic survey, the chance to form a government is not yet in his grasp. That’s why he devotes his efforts to drawing votes from the right, to shrink the bloc that would support Netanyahu when the time comes.

“A Likudnik will switch from Likud to Yesh Atid, but he won’t switch to a party with Merav Michaeli [Zionist Union] because she’s seen as extreme left,” a party activist told Haaretz, explaining why Yesh Atid shouldn’t join a left-center merger. “A Likudnik won’t vote for the merger – so what have we accomplished if the blocs remain the same?”

Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy conveys similar messages. “I’m not going with Labor supporters,” he told Haaretz. “We have to stabilize the blocs. That means that yesterday at a salon meeting in Haifa I had 70 percent ex-Likudniks. That’s what we want.”

However, Perry, who is identified with the party’s left flank, said the entire public interests him – “supporters of Zionist Union, and supporters of Kulanu, and supporters of Habayit Hayehudi too, if they like.”

Sharing is caring

Lapid at a charity event in Petah Tikva, September, 2016.Credit: David Weil

In recent months the party has begun preparing for a new election, reestablishing local headquarters and engaging in widespread activity in the field. It seems its senior members have learned a thing or two from the way U.S. President Barack Obama conducted his campaign for the White House.

Two hours before Lapid’s Rosh Hashanah speech in Rishon Letzion, there was a large gathering of activists to choose heads of staffs and local leaders from the center of the country. They presented a study about the results of the Obama campaign, which showed that intensive activity by local staffers in certain districts influenced the voter turnout for the party more than ads and election broadcasts. That’s why Yesh Atid decided to address the residents by means of its local staffers in “door to door” activity, similar to that in Obama’s campaigns.

In gatherings of party activists, Lapid usually says that studies have demonstrated that what most convinces people to vote for a party is the support of “people like them,” so door-to-door meetings with residents can bring a significant payoff at election time. In Nahariya Lapid told someone: “You have hundreds of people on the telephone in your pocket who are ‘people like us,’ and together you and I can win the election.”

In addition, the party has already begun to try in recent months to provide local communities with solutions to their day-to-day problems, in a hope to receive their vote later on. This summer, for example, party activists conducted one-day camps in Nahariya and Ashkelon. Another front is technological. By means of new software called Momentum, the party is examining the possibility of collecting communication details from people it will speak to, and mapping the supporters and potential supporters based on their opinions. With the potential supporters it will later be able to form a personal relationship, send emails or text messages in order to persuade them, invite them to living room conversations and so on, and try to recruit present supporters to become active. A similar program, used by the left-wing V15 organization in the previous election, made Netanyahu very nervous. Since then he has been trying to promote a law against the organization.

Recently the party has also begun to help homogenous sectors of the population as a way of attracting additional supporters. In August they set up a “special division for families with special needs,” and they are also planning a division for farmers, for new immigrants, for Druze, for the LGBT community – and a strong women’s division that conducts regular women’s evenings led by Lapid’s wife, Lihi.

“The purpose of the women’s evenings is to show that the women’s issue is not another gimmick, but something they’re committed to in the most important place in the party, the home of the party leader,” said the activist. At a gathering held recently in Nes Tziona the audience joked that Lihi Lapid will be the Israeli Hillary Clinton – and become prime minister after her husband serves in the position.

Doing an injustice?

Among party activists there is a feeling that Lapid’s critics, who accuse him of calm, cold cynicism, are doing him an injustice. They often emphasize that Lapid’s agenda on matters of drafting the ultra-Orthodox and requiring their children to study basic subjects remained consistent even when he softened his rhetoric towards the Haredim.

“I think he has internalized the fact that a large part of the rift in the nation stems from the politicians,” said a party activist. “And I really think he has understood that it’s not just a good niche to be in, but he really believes that we have to be united, otherwise we’ll cause our own disintegration from within.”

Some of the party activists called Lapid’s speech in Rishon Letzion a “foundational speech.” In fact, most of it was identical to the speech he has delivered in recent months to hundreds of Israelis.

“These days, this place, are the rebirth of the Israeli center,” he said. In an effort to adopt Obama’s idealism, he added with pathos: “There will be moments when we’ll have to sail against the wind and to feel the intensity of the loneliness of people who are fighting. These will be the best moments of our lives. If you believe in yourselves and in one another, some day we’ll tell our children and our grandchildren that for their sake we embarked on a journey that begins with a few words,” he said, whispering, “Yesh Atid, we’ve come to make a change.”

After the event, one party activist said: “I could have done with less pomposity.”

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