Benjamin Netanyahu is looking for Yair Lapid. In every appearance he makes on his abbreviated “green passport” campaign tour throughout Israel, he is seeking him out. “Where’s Yair? Has anyone seen Yair Lapid recently?” He starts looking behind the podium. “Have you noticed he’s disappeared recently?”
Why is Netanyahu still standing after all this time? LISTEN to Haaretz's Election Overdose podcast
Even in the shorter version of Netanyahu’s stump speech, delivered via Facebook Live from his motorcade, he’ll do a little “Where’s Yair?” search between the car seats.
The Yesh Atid leader worries Netanyahu. Next week is the 28th anniversary of his first election as Likud leader, when he easily beat two vastly more experienced politicians in David Levy and Moshe Katsav. And next week will be the 10th time Netanyahu leads Likud in a Knesset election (equaling the record set by Menachem Begin, who led the party and its predecessor in Israel’s first 10 elections). But in all of his political battles for the Likud leadership and the prime ministership, Netanyahu has never faced a challenger with a more meager public record than Lapid.
Netanyahu was never afraid to take on members of the founding generation like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, or celebrated generals – though he hasn’t always won.
Those who did beat Netanyahu – Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert – didn’t do so because they held more impressive CVs. They won by sticking to a coherent strategy that had been prepared for them. Netanyahu lost when he faced challengers who allowed serious professionals to run their campaigns (Stan Greenberg for Barak, and Reuven Adler for Sharon and Olmert).
This is exactly how Netanyahu won for the first time in 1996, when he became prime minister at the age of 46. He beat Peres, one of the great builders of Israel, even though the height of his own political career had been deputy foreign minister. He won by following strategist Arthur Finkelstein’s plan to the letter.
- Israel election: Will Bennett ever be able to break away from Netanyahu?
- Netanyahu sent vaccines to ruling elites around the world. It may cost him at home
- How Israel’s Jewish conversions ruling entraps Netanyahu
Netanyahu believes that Lapid is acting in this campaign just as he himself did 25 years ago. The centrist is faithfully executing the plan of his Democrat pollster from Washington, Mark Mellman.
Lapid is fanatically obeying Mellman’s orders, keeping a low profile and not allowing himself to be dragged into combat with the Likud war machine, targeting only the objectives Mellman set out with his preprepared messages. And it’s working.
Netanyahu’s other challengers, Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, have been in politics longer than Lapid and know Netanyahu much better. But they peaked early in the race, only to crash down in the polls. Lapid’s rise, in contrast, has been slow but steady and relentlessly upward. Netanyahu has also seen how Lapid has matured over the last couple of years. He learned how to curb his own aspirations when he agreed to be a member of Benny Gantz’s “cockpit” in Kahol Lavan and to subordinate himself to someone else’s ambitions.
Netanyahu fears that Lapid can build a coalition to replace him and, if necessary, even give up the prime minister’s job for that.
In Israel, there is no devastatingly effective and ruthlessly professional campaigner like Netanyahu. Perhaps not anywhere in the world. And he knows that for the first time in 12 years, since Olmert left the scene, he is facing another professional. That is why Netanyahu spent the recent months of lockdown wisely, studying his rival, carrying out research, forming messages and testing them on focus groups. Now that he is finally on the campaign trail, his stump speech is perfectly built around Lapid’s vulnerabilities.
There is, of course, also a tactical reason for focusing on the “leftist” Lapid rather than Sa’ar, who is Likud flesh and blood, and cannot be seen as a real rival. Netanyahu always wants his campaigns to be about him facing the left. But to make Lapid his target, Netanyahu had to invest time and resources.
Lapid was already a target in the past three elections, when Netanyahu tried to portray him as Gantz’s puppet master. But Lapid is no longer just a convenient lightning rod. He has become the real enemy, which is why Netanyahu has completely changed his attitude toward him ahead of Tuesday’s election. In the past three ballots, when Gantz was the enemy, Netanyahu framed Lapid as a clever and devious figure, manipulating naive Benny. Now he’s the main challenger, Netanyahu is doing everything to ridicule and belittle Lapid as a useless dilettante. And by doing so, ultimately paying him respect.
In each speech, Netanyahu charges that Sa’ar and Bennett “are hiding the fact that they don’t have a government without Lapid heading it, and they’re transferring votes from the right to the left.” In the narrative he has built for this campaign, the New Hope and Yamina leaders are the real villains for betraying their own right-wing camp, while Lapid is just a feckless leftist who will reap the rewards. But they get only a couple of sentences in the speech, while the bulk of negative attention is focused on the former TV personality.
Before last March’s election, Netanyahu’s campaign tour was much longer and his stump speech was a legacy-defining one. He would expand on his life story, emphasizing how it was he that had transformed little backward Israel into “an empire!” His rival Gantz was there, but in the margins.
This year’s tour is, due to COVID necessity, much shorter and played out in front of smaller crowds. This at least gives Netanyahu the opportunity to say at the start of every speech, “This is the first political rally in the world using the Green Pass,” referring to Israel’s passport for the COVID vaccinated and immune. He’s relying on the live broadcast to push that message.
It’s also a much more positive campaign than the ones Netanyahu usually runs. He has spent much less time demonizing “the left.” It’s all about comparing himself to Lapid.
Of course, his 2021 campaign doesn’t spare the self-congratulation. He repeatedly mentions how he’s built Israel up to be the “eighth world power” (according to a meaningless ranking concocted by a U.S. website owned by a friendly billionaire). But throughout, he uses Lapid as his counterpoint. To do that, he’s selected four Lapid quotes, each of which allow him to emphasize his own achievements: bringing vaccines to Israel; building the economy; signing the recent diplomatic agreements with four Arab states; and facing off the Iranian threat.
‘Yair “Five vaccines” Lapid’
Netanyahu constantly echoes Lapid’s prediction – made on the “Ofira and Berkovic” chat show last November – that “in January maybe a box with five vaccines will arrive, and the rest will come after everyone else.” That quote, which features at the top of the speech, allows Netanyahu to launch into a self-glorifying rant: “Five vaccines? Five million! And we’re first in the world! What Yair ‘Five vaccines’ Lapid can’t even imagine, we’re already doing.”
And this is the cue for Netanyahu to describe the “50 phone calls” he had with the CEOs of pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna.
“There are 9 million people in Israel. Do you know how many people there are in the world? Nearly 9 billion. Which means we’re not even a percent, we’re a thousandth! How does a country of just 0.001 percent get vaccines before powers of billions? They say any prime minister can do it. But there are 180 countries [in some speeches he’s inflated this to 200] and all those leaders are calling. Who do they answer? They answer those they know. Those they respect.”
Once he’s finished describing how he convinced the CEO of Pfizer to sell vaccines to Israel before everyone else, Netanyahu promises to bring “another 36 million vaccines!” (making the math 9 million Israelis each needing two vaccines every six months). If the rally is taking place in a small city in the Negev or the Galilee, he’ll also dangle the possibility of building a new vaccine plant there, bringing lots of jobs. And then he goes onto Lapid and the economy.
‘A good interviewer’
The section on the economy always begins with a reminder that Lapid was once a talk-show host. “Actually a good interviewer, but he doesn’t understand anything about economics.” Here Netanyahu quotes Lapid, who had the then-former prime minister on his show 19 years ago – sometimes the actual clip is screened in the background – and in a self-deprecating remark said: “I don’t understand anything about economics.”
“He was right then and he’s right now,” thunders Netanyahu. “He doesn’t understand anything about economics. And that’s why he was the worst finance minister in history. Not only doesn’t he understand anything about economics, he doesn’t understand anything about leadership, he doesn’t understand anything about statesmanship.”
At this point, depending on how much time he has, Netanyahu details some of the incredible things he has done over the years for Israel’s economy, and the even greater things he’ll do when he is reelected.
“We went into the coronavirus with a strong economy, thanks to the government we lead,” he says in every speech. “And thanks to the vaccines we brought, we’re emerging first from the coronavirus. You remember, those vaccines Lapid said we’d only get five of.”
‘Uprooting for peace’
The chapter of the speech on the accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco also begins with a quote from Lapid. This time, it’s an interview from 2014 when he said that as part of unilateral separation from the Palestinians, Israel would have to “evacuate 80 or 90,000 settlers.” Netanyahu extrapolates from this that Lapid said “we can’t have historic peace agreements if we don’t uproot Jews. We proved it’s possible. We changed that paradigm from uprooting for peace to peace for peace! Peace with a raised head! Peace with a straight back! And we’re on the way to more peace agreements!”
And how did Netanyahu achieve peace with the Arabs? By standing up to Iran of course.
Here, too, there’s a convenient quote from Lapid. Six years on, Netanyahu is still proud of his provocative speech – on the eve of another Israeli election – to the joint session of Congress where he attacked President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Few will remember it (Netanyahu’s researchers ferreted it out), but at the time Lapid said the speech “will cause damage to Israel’s security interests.”
Netanyahu begs to differ. “While I was making the speech, representatives of the Arab leaders called my people and said ‘We don’t believe it! We don’t believe how you’re standing up to the world powers! And we’re coming with you!’ If there’s anything that brought these peace agreements, it’s the fact that the Arab states stopped seeing Israel as an enemy but as an ally.” If he has a bit more time, Netanyahu will rhapsodize about “dozens of secret operations” carried out under his orders by “our wonderful boys” against Iran.
Whether it’s a few minutes on Facebook Live in the car or a half-hour performance on stage, these four Lapid quotes will always be present – the basic structure of Netanyahu’s stump speech. Without notes or a teleprompter. Occasionally, his aide and social media wizard Topaz Luk will prompt him on one or other of them. It’s a modular speech that can be built in different order and length. But these quotes are its four pillars.
Netanyahu peppers the speech with reminiscences of his time in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit 50 years ago, comparing his military record with that of Lapid, who served as a reporter on the IDF’s magazine. Interestingly, though Netanyahu also boasts of his studies at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he doesn’t actually make the comparison to Lapid’s lack of a formal education. It seems that mocking someone for not finishing high school or going to university didn’t play well with the focus groups of potential Likud voters.
Three hints for the future
Netanyahu is working hard against Lapid and his other rivals, but he believes he’s going to win. Each speech includes three tantalizing hints for what the future holds, once he’s reelected as the prime minster of “a stable right-wing government without any rotation-mutation.”
One hint can be found in the new label he always uses for the media, which is “busy putting us to sleep and splitting the right.” He no longer accuses the media of being part of the left or serving a specific party, though. This time, “the media is a political party in its own right.”
This is an intriguing description Netanyahu has devised, and he knows why. Once he’s reelected, he will return to his old plans of reining in those pesky journalists and reordering the media map at his convenience. To do that, he is busy not only attacking the media but undermining its very legitimacy by casting it as a political party.
His more specific promises also contain hints and threats. He pledges, in the first meeting of his new cabinet, to pass a 15-billion-shekel ($4.5 billion) stimulus package. If only he could pass it immediately, he says. He lists “all the bakeries, garages, cosmeticians, falafel stands,” the furloughed workers and their employers, being denied the funds they desperately need. “They tell me, legal advisers [here he uses the Hebrew word that also means ‘attorney general’ – Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit indicted him on the corruption charges Netanyahu never mentions in his campaign speeches], frustrated politicians, that it’s ‘election economics.’ Interesting. When I brought vaccines to save lives, they didn’t say it was ‘election medicine.’ So why do they say it when I try to save businesses that people invested their lives in? They’re the ones doing cynical ‘election economics.’”
Just like with the media, Netanyahu is saying that the attorney general is also actually a politician and his day of reckoning will come after the election.
Fifteen billion shekels is just the beginning. “In the coming year,” Netanyahu vows, “I’m going to focus on the economy and transform Israel into the country with the fastest growth in the world.” Another Netanyahu promise (in the last three elections he also promised to annex parts of the West Bank, something that has since been airbrushed out of memory), but why is he fixated on doing it within a year? The fastest growth in the world would be an incredible achievement even if takes five years.
Netanyahu is trying to plant in the minds of voters that because of the vaccines he secured, Israel now has a short window of opportunity to “shoot the economy upward” – and therefore it’s critical that he be allowed to focus on that mission over the next year. This is the closest Netanyahu comes in his speech to referring to his corruption trial, which is set to resume just 13 days after the election with the testimony of the first witness for the prosecution. Netanyahu may be required to sit and hear these witnesses three times a week, but he has no intention of wasting his time in Jerusalem District Court. In the “coming year,” he must be allowed to dedicate himself to growing the economy.
Netanyahu is making clear that if he wins, he is going to get rid of the attorney general, who is actually a politician, and the meddlesome media, which is a political party, and continue serving the nation like Yair Lapid never could.