The phrase "Yair Lapid is king" was trending on Twitter in recent days, but the Yesh Atid chairman and former media personality hasn’t always had such an easy ride with the public. Lapid has often been the subject of mockery because his attempts to avoid strident ideological messages have often descended into exaggeration, inaccuracy and even embarrassment. Lior Schleien, a famous Israeli comedian and former host of the Israeli satire TV program "Gav Ha'Uma," slammed Lapid for "having no ideology" in 2019.
“He changes his position according to what’s right for him at that moment,” Schleien said on the program. “When he didn’t want to be finance minister, he said ‘the finance minister needs to be an economist.’ When he was appointed to the post, he said ‘the finance minister doesn’t need to be an economist.’”
There were also charges of arrogance. In his first interview after the 2013 election, in which he won 19 Knesset seats, Lapid estimated that within four years he would become prime minister. “You’ll win the next election?” he was asked. “I assume so,” he replied, exuding excessive confidence.
Eight years on, Lapid's assumption is closer than ever to being realized. It is still too early to know if Lapid and his partner, Naftali Bennett, will succeed in swearing in the unity government, but either way, Lapid has finally managed to build himself up as serious contender to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, forging his status as a candidate for prime minister.
This has been reflected in the praise Lapid has received over the past few days. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak tweeted that “Lapid is navigating [the coalition negotiations] with wisdom and nobility." Meretz MK Mossi Raz said "Yair Lapid is the reason there is a government." Knesset members in the anti-Netanyahu bloc appreciated his restrained behavior, the way in which he brought together parties from the right and the left, and his willingness to give up jobs and honors in order to reach his goal.
Many in the Knesset believe that if a new government is formed, Lapid has a real chance of becoming prime minister. “There are good reasons that the 'government of change' will last for four years,” said one of the people expected to be a minister in the new government. “Benjamin Netanyahu is the one who will help Lapid get through Bennett’s term. Netanyahu is the glue that binds the 'change coalition' together. The more Netanyahu presents himself as someone who will run again for the premiership, the more incentivized Lapid, Bennett and Sa’ar will be to bite their tongues and continue in spite of disagreements. Netanyahu will try to undermine them, and they will try to wear him down as leader of the opposition.”
“Lapid really put his ego aside,” said an official from Yesh Atid who has known him for many years. “Not a lot of people know that Lapid is a person who is very focused on the target. His goal was not to become prime minister, but to remove Netanyahu from power. The minute that was what he decided, everything was done differently.”
- Finally, a government that will work for us
- 'King Bibi' wasn't the only big myth shattered in Israel this week
This focus on the towering figure of Netanyahu also left Lapid with few options in terms of his electoral strategy. During the last election campaign he realized that his chances of assuming power through a routine campaign were slim: If he had positioned himself as a candidate for prime minister, Yesh Atid would have drawn voters from Labor, Meretz and Kahol Lavan. But if one of those parties had not passed the electoral threshold, Lapid would not have had a “bloc” on which he could build a coalition.
At the same time, those around him worried that such a declaration would have driven panicked right-wing voters who supported Yamina and New Hope back into Netanyahu’s arms, out of fears that Bennett and Sa’ar would join a left-wing coalition headed by Lapid. “Lapid decided back at an early stage of the campaign that he was willing for Yesh Atid to be smaller in order to guarantee the parties in the bloc would pass the electoral threshold,” said one the people close to him this week. “If he had run a different campaign, he could easily have stood today at the head of a party with at least 20 Knesset seats, and not settled for just 17.”
In the end, Lapid decided to conduct a different campaign, quiet and cunning. His main goal was to replace Netanyahu, and he managed to continuously improve Yesh Atid’s showing in the polls without endangering the other parties in the bloc, on the left and on the right. Yesh Atid finished the last election as the second-largest party in the Knesset.
Lapid may very well become prime minister in another two years as the representative of the center-left bloc, and as a politician who has sustained a good relationship with the Knesset’s Arab parties. But in the past, he made a strategic attempt to “break to the right,” in an attempt to draw support from “soft right” voters who opposed Netanyahu. The attempt, which lasted for a few years, included a crude attack on civil society organizations, first and foremost Breaking the Silence, attacks on Arab MKs (the ”Zoabis”) and an unsuccessful attempt to appeal to Haredi groups and traditional voters.
In an interview with Haaretz in 2019, former minister Jacob Perry, who is close to Lapid, said: “Yair was exposed to right-wing ideology at home, but it was very moderate. It wasn’t expressed in his first term in Knesset. In his second term he made a strategic decision to move rightward. I don’t know if the pollster [Mark] Melman told him bluntly to take a right turn, but he told him what issues to pay less attention to. For example, the Palestinian issue. The thing is that his break to the right did not bring the hoped-for results, because the right had better alternatives.”
But Lapid bided his time. He joined forces with Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party in 2019, and even relinquished his claims to a rotation agreement once he realized this demand was driving away voters. Many people understood this move as a precursor to his willingness to hand Naftali Bennett the first rotation as prime minister.
“Lapid will establish and prove himself as a leader," said a person who knows him well. "Time after time he kept his word and was willing to forgo his pride to accomplish his goal. Lapid is finally in the place he aimed for.”