Opinion

Ex-Gantz Ally Isn't Going to Make It as Prime Minister, but at Least He Finally Came Home

Ran Shimoni
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Yair Lapid in the Kahol Lavan campaign headquarters on the night of the March 2020 election results, Tel Aviv, March 3, 2020.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Ran Shimoni

Yair Lapid has come home. After years of vainly wooing right-wingers, the national-religious and the ultra-Orthodox, he must have realized that something in his grand plan wasn’t working, but still: He didn’t give up. But his discarding by Benny Gantz – after the arduous path they strode together, after Lapid essentially gave up the rotation with Gantz – left him no choice. It was time to go back home.

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And since he did – and he’s as surprised as anyone – life has been good. The government is botching its handling of the coronavirus crisis, Gantz is turning out to be a flop, while he, Lapid, soars in the polls by dint of holding the ultimate job: Chairman of the furious opposition.

Lapid came to the Haaretz weekly podcast (he no longer boycotts the newspaper) in an exceedingly conciliatory mood. “Anger is a waste of time,” he said. Like a prodigal son, he returned to show the entire camp “what happened to Benny Gantz.” Knowing his audience well, Lapid spoke about him with a degree of pity (or was it gloating?) and said he wouldn’t tell all, because there are things “that are best said in private.”

When he was interviewed on the television program “Meet the Press” last Saturday, he lashed out at the cabinet (“They have no common sense”), skillfully planted the idea of a future government with Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman (“It would be better than the present government”) and only hesitated slightly before answering “Yes!” when asked, “Do you want to replace Netanyahu?”

Naftali Bennett, left, and Yair Lapid in the Knesset, Jerusalem, January 20, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Lapid is clearly enjoying himself these days. His messages are hitting the mark, his jokes are working and everyone hates Netanyahu and Gantz. That’s the feeling you get when you come home. The place isn’t as big as he remembered, only about 17 Knesset seats, but home is home. Here you can almost repress that feeling of betrayal, of the power that slipped through your hands. Almost.

Lapid has admitted that he ruminates over what happened, and replays the moment when it all fell apart over and over in his mind; the moment when he plunged from the peak of his power right back to the starting point, the moment when he became the Sisyphus of Israeli politics.

Let’s not forget why Lapid ran away from home, though. He did it because he believed a bigger future awaited him. The camp in which he grew up – the secular, liberal, supposedly leftist camp – was not the peak Lapid wanted to conquer. He’d done that already in his life before he was sworn into the Knesset – in journalism, on television shows he hosted and in pubs he visited.

Once he became a public figure, he understood that to achieve his dreams he had to attract other voices, to establish a “centrist” political position. Outwardly at least, he changed his lifestyle and adjusted his opinions and beliefs accordingly, but nothing happened. He chastised leftist organizations, his wife Lihi partook in the Jewish ritual of separating challah – in short, he tried everything, but to no avail. He was still perceived as a religion-hating bourgeois type from Tel Aviv, not the man who would one day lead the country.

Then along came Gantz, who was seen as the ultimate Zionist figure, and even the rotation with him didn’t survive. To this day Lapid says there was no electoral justification for it, but the fact is that voters followed Gantz as if moonstruck and Lapid had to stand back and applaud. He worked like crazy and with true dedication, out of the political understanding that this was the only chance to bring change. He supported Gantz, promoted him, covered for all the mistakes that he himself would never have made, and again he’s back at the starting point – leading the camp he never really wanted to lead, but the only one where his charm still works.

And now, given the possibility of a fourth round of elections, Lapid is again positioning himself as an alternative. The political horizon that was suddenly revealed to him is tempting him once again. He may even be fantasizing that Gantz, the man who “crawled to Netanyahu,” will eventually come crawling back to him.

Yair Lapid, left, and Benny Gantz go for a hug during a campaign event, Tel Aviv, March 3, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

But if he could just read the political map – a skill Lapid has not particularly excelled at to date – he would see that the boulder he’s begun pushing up the mountain will plummet back down again; he would see that this time around, too, no one will vote for him aside from the those who’ve always been his biggest fans, and that he’ll be left home once more.

So maybe Lapid would be better off coming to terms with the place to which he keeps returning again and again. Few public figures are able to give their voters as vivid a sense of belonging as he does. Like Arye Dery, Lieberman or Zehava Galon, each to his or her respective camp,

Lapid is first and foremost the embodiment of the camp from which he comes: A handsome urban Jew, son of secular nobility, a man of Western culture, the boy who “translated for the housekeeper” his writer mother’s lofty Hebrew. This camp may not make him prime minister, but at least it could give him back something that he lost over the years: Himself.

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