Opinion

The Second Winner of the Israeli Election

Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White party, holds hands with his party candidates Yair Lapid, Moshe Yaalon and Gaby Ashkenazi, Tel Aviv, Israel April 10, 2019.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu may have won the election, but another politician, Yair Lapid, also distinguished himself, racking up an impressive personal achievement and advancing himself in the future race to lead the country. His agreement to give up the top spot, to merge his Yesh Atid party with Benny Gantz’s brand-new party and to serve as No. 2 on the Kahol Lavan joint ticket may well prove to be the best decision of his political career.

It’s true that his campaign failed, and his ambitious effort to challenge Netanyahu was scuttled by the prime minister. But the failure is being attributed to Gantz. Lapid stood out as an experienced politician among the army generals of Kahol Lavan’s leadership, and his promise “to embitter Netanyahu’s life from the opposition” shows that he was quickly able to shift direction.

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Lapid wants with all his might to be prime minister, but his weak military experience – he served as a reporter for the army magazine Bamahaneh – has been a handicap up to now. Netanyahu used it over and over during the campaign to goad him over his ambitions. And the polls showed that the public didn’t view Lapid as a candidate of Netanyahu’s stature.

Lapid got the message and consented to have the ticket’s three former army chiefs of staff placed above and alongside him, in addition to another few major generals and senior Mossad officials and the like below them. But now it turns out that such military merchandise has limited drawing power.

Rank, no matter how high, isn’t enough to create the kind of security and diplomatic authority that can compete with Netanyahu’s impressive diplomatic talents and the prime minister’s demonstrated aversion to war and military funerals. Hopes that mobilizing senior defense figures could break the hold of right-wing government in the country proved false on Election Day.

But the election result provides hope for Lapid in the post-Netanyahu era. The rivals for the throne in Netanyahu’s Likud party – Yisrael Katz (a platoon commander in the paratroops) and Gideon Sa’ar (a soldier in the Golani infantry brigade) – admittedly have military records with more combat experience than Lapid’s, but that doesn’t come close to making them security experts or war heroes of the Ariel Sharon type.

Sa’ar and Katz are civilian politicians, just like Lapid. And he surpasses them when it comes to charisma, his talent for speaking in public and on television and in his social media posts. In the post-Netanyahu era, this would be a matchup between Lapid, the man, and Likud, the brand.

In the last Knesset term, Lapid remained in opposition while the Zionist Union ticket, headed by Isaac Herzog, knocked in vain on the Netanyahu government’s door and later shattered into pieces. Parliamentary life bored the Yesh Atid leader, who was rarely seen in the Knesset chamber or at committee meetings. He stood out instead for superfluous public diplomacy trips abroad and a failed effort to make overtures to the religious sector. But he was a success in his public appearances around the country and in maintaining the functioning of his Yesh Atid party and party discipline among its Knesset members.

Yesh Atid’s vote against the nation-state law will redound to his credit. But above all, sitting in opposition has allowed Lapid to offer an alternative to Netanyahu’s government and to boost Lapid’s Knesset representation from the 11 seats that Yesh Atid had to Kahol Lavan’s 35 seats in the new Knesset. Had he entered the coalition four years ago, it would have been hard for people to view him as an alternative, just as his tenure as finance minister in a previous government hurt him badly.

Lapid’s challenge now is to withstand both Netanyahu’s enticements and the pressure from people of goodwill to join a national unity government, instead sticking to his promise to be a fighting opposition. He should insist on this even if it means saying goodbye to Gantz. He laid out his agenda on Facebook over Shabbat – taking on corruption, protecting the courts, challenging the ultra-Orthodox, a war on Hamas, embracing American Jews, increasing welfare payments to the disabled and the elderly, providing unemployment compensation and sick pay to the self-employed and cutting funding to isolated West Bank settlements.

This could provide him with full employment in the coming Knesset term. And if he shows himself to be hard-working, serious and persistent, he has a future.