Foreign Minister Lapid Has Checkmated Prime Minister Bennett

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Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett at the Knesset this week.
Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett at the Knesset this week.Credit: Emil Salman

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who is also the alternate prime minister, can and should be criticized for running away from the coronavirus cabinet (nobody had any expectations of the other escapee, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, but for the record, he should also be condemned).

Lapid’s behavior is the fruit of a shameless political strategy. It’s also a clue to the bigger picture of the balance of forces between the two “bros,” Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who joined together to oust Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lapid justified his absence from the coronavirus cabinet by saying, “Israel has one prime minister, and his name is Naftali Bennett. I back him completely, participate in decisions when I’m asked to and assume collective responsibility by dint of being a minister in this government... Even as alternate prime minister, I have no need to be there, because the sitting prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is managing the coronavirus crisis superbly.” These statements are so ironic they are almost offensive.

Clearly, a member of the coronavirus cabinet bears more responsibility than an ordinary minister does, just as members of the diplomatic-security cabinet bear more responsibility than ordinary ministers in the event of an unsuccessful war. The coronavirus cabinet is the one that makes last-minute decisions in the dead of night that will upset the public and cause it pain. Members of the coronavirus cabinet will be the scapegoats in the coming months, which are likely to be more miserable than expected.

After a year and a half, anyone with any political sense understands that it’s impossible to come out looking good from managing the coronavirus crisis. No government – neither the previous one nor the current one – can cope with the pandemic and the Health Ministry’s fearmongering.

Only two measures have proven to halt the virus: lockdowns, whose destructive effects are known, and vaccines, whose effectiveness has declined in the face of the latest variant of the virus. All other measures – the green and purple passes, trying to solve issues at Ben-Gurion International Airport, restricting gatherings, fairy tales about dividing classrooms into pods – are instituted mainly to avoid feeling frustratingly and humiliatingly powerless, and also to postpone the horror of a lockdown for as long as possible (while also effectively preparing the public for it).

But this lesson was preceded by another, more personal lesson learned by Lapid back when he, a novice politician and a gentleman who had promised his voters to lower the cost of living, was led by the seasoned Netanyahu straight into the trap of the Finance Ministry during a macroeconomic crisis. He left that ministry – or, to more be precise, was fired – battered and scorned. It took him years to repair his image after that brief, unpleasant adventure.

Lapid genuinely wants to be a gentleman. But he’s not at all willing to be a sucker.

The prevailing wisdom is that Bennett, who commands only six Knesset seats, received a gift from heaven, while Lapid set aside his ego and with chivalrous modesty sacrificed what was due him. But as time passes, it’s becoming clear that Lapid is actually an excellent chess player, while Bennett is a simpleton who took the bait, hook, line and sinker. Granted, he realized his dream of becoming prime minister. But along the way, he lost a significant portion of his right-wing base. And now, he has to deal with a new outbreak of the coronavirus, which was in a temporary lull when he entered office.

In another two years, Lapid will become prime minister, with a solid base of Netanyahu opponents behind him. Nobody knows where we’ll be by then in terms of the coronavirus. But the possibility exists that it will be contained, disappear or at least be handled better, thanks to an accumulation of knowledge.

There’s some merit to the claim by Netanyahu supporters and other rightists that Lapid is the one pulling Bennett’s strings (as opposed to the idiotic, racist claim that United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas is controlling the government). Bennett has been maneuvered quite expertly by Lapid, who posed as self-sacrificing and modest. And now, as prime minister, he’s wallowing in the mud of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Lapid is standing on the sidelines and waiting. The virus hasn’t infected him. In another two years, he’ll skyrocket to the Prime Minister’s Office, whereas Bennett is at great risk of collapsing. Checkmate.

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