Yair Lapid's Popularity Is Waning as Finance Minister

There is no doubt that this was Lapid’s most difficult week since entering politics, as he was forced to give simultaneous interviews defending himself to the three networks, and to warn protesters that they are really protesting against themselves.

Rotem Shtarkman
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Rotem Shtarkman

How much irony was wrapped in the news conference Finance Minister Yair Lapid hurriedly organized on Wednesday.

His senior officials only heard about it from reporters who called them for comments. Grasping how angry the public was over his budget proposals, Lapid intended to make the prime time TV news at 8 P.M.

Fury over serious damage to everyone’s pockets: Lower income, higher expenses, retirement savings eaten away. And Lapid, who was elected by half a million voters because of all the evil represented by the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, Ofer Eini − the power of the big unions, the excess privileges, the nepotism, cronyism and connection to tycoons − stood together shoulder to shoulder, the two of them flattering each other.

Eini, who arranged for some of the 700,000 Histadrut members a relatively comfortable budget at the expense of the other 3 million workers, happily took upon himself the mission and even continued to supply the goods the next day on the morning radio shows.

Clearly, this is not the type of support Lapid needs these days. But in economics, which it seems Lapid has already learned, you are forced to choose among the possible alternatives. And Eini was the only one who answered the phone after all the others evaporated and left the brand new finance minister to play all by himself.

Our two responsible adults mumbled something two days late − Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer sent a lukewarm statement of support by email, and President Shimon Peres said it will be difficult at first but it will pass. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for an imperial tour of China at the beginning of the week, while Naftali Bennett, head of the third party in the coalition and the most senior economic minister after Lapid, simply was sleeping.

It is possible Bennett was a bit angry at the Netanyahu family, who left him behind in Israel as part of the punishment he is still serving. But Bennett actually made headlines this week when he recommended to the owners of small businesses to move to Damascus, where, as he put it, the bureaucracy was more efficient. It is possible he meant the undertaking business, whose fees were one of the items dealt with in the budget − a savings of NIS 45 million a year to the National Insurance Institute.

O brother, where art thou?

On Thursday Bennett suddenly woke up about the budget and sent a message of support for Lapid and his sinking image to his followers on Twitter. Where was the missing brother for three days?

But nothing compares to what Lapid did to Netanyahu, who chose to keep his lips sealed and let Lapid get into trouble. Yet on Wednesday morning when his staff in the Prime Minister’s Office read the Israeli papers and understood the dimensions of the trouble, they invited the reporters who accompanied Netanyahu’s delegation to hear the boss say in his own voice that he is giving Lapid his full support. There are quite a number of soccer coaches in Israel who can tell Lapid how long such support lasts.

There is no doubt that this was Lapid’s most difficult week since entering politics. One can safely assume he would have preferred for a moment to return to his old job, even if that meant presenting the Friday night program on Channel 10 and reporting on the holiday celebrations at schools − as well as on the demonstrations expected tomorrow, exactly two years after the cottage cheese protest started on the eve of Shavuot 2011. Instead he was forced to give simultaneous interviews defending himself to the three networks, and to warn the protesters that they are really protesting against themselves. He even showed a fashionable distance from them when he warned “the prices of your apartments will fall by half” − as if these protesters own apartments.

A month before the last election, public support for Lapid shot up, and with it the pugnacity of his speeches: “They will raise your taxes, raise prices. They are the old politics and we are the new [politics].” The support for him strengthened even after the election, mostly after he showed maturity, patience and stood firm in his negotiations over establishing the new government.

Even after being appointed finance minister, it seemed Lapid was continuing to gain popularity. In mid-April he became the strongest, most influential, admired politician in the country − and the polls showed that if there were new elections, his party Yesh Atid would win 30 Knesset seats. Lapid even easily booted out Netanyahu from Time magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people − the same magazine that last year crowned Netanyahu “King Bibi” on its cover.

Three weeks have passed since Lapid peaked, King Bibi is off having a good time in China, and the finance minister was forced to appear with Eini in his first press conference − a bit pale and weak, maybe because of a lack of sleep. On the same exact day, the State Comptroller exposed the scandal of the overseas trips of the Ashdod Port management. The Lapid of the election campaign would never have let such juicy material slip through his fingers. But today’s Lapid simply does not have the privilege of dealing with such matters. New politics was just a slogan, as it’s turned out.

One reason for the demise of the social protest movement of summer 2011 was that many Israelis could not identify with its left-wing agenda.