Opinion

Yair Lapid Benefits From the Looniness Surrounding PM Benjamin Netanyahu

Crazy wife? Naughty son? Misbehaving backbenchers? Bibi gets to pose as the responsible adult, but Israelis are getting tired of the discord

Yair Lapid speaks at a faction meeting of the Yesh Atid party.
Tomer Appelbaum

A junior manager once told me that she was very stressed at work. I suggested that she surround herself with people who were even more stressed; that way the stress would rub off on them, unlocking her calm side.

Sometimes this seems the strategy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s surrounded by crazy people or ideas, so he seems the most responsible, level-headed and authoritative person in the room. That’s the source of his strength and the explanation for his unblemished position in the polls despite all the corruption investigations against him. Basically, everywhere he operates you can find people with strange behavior and ideas, and this helps him.

It helps when it comes to the prime minister’s home life, like the recordings that suggest his wife is unbalanced and his son Yair has poor leisure-time habits. Netanyahu always complains about a persecution campaign against them, and about the media’s unbridled obsession with criticizing his family.

And it works. He emerges as the victim in every affair that crops up between a journey to India, a jump to Davos and a visit to Moscow. Such events only stir his fans' empathy for him, because of “what they’re doing to him.”

And this happens in domestic politics as well. When his partners in the governing coalition bring up dubious ideas such as Avigdor Lieberman’s land swap for Wadi Ara and his death penalty for terrorists, Netanyahu lets this discussion carry on. That way he can be seen as the responsible adult. It’s Lieberman who has gone crazy.

And when Habayit Hayehudi suggests annexing settlement blocs in the West Bank, Netanyahu is pleased. It’s convenient for him that these ideas are in the air, so he can stop them and once again emerge as the level-headed and responsible one.

The same is true of the law preventing the police from publishing their recommendations on certain indictments, which was tailored to his measurements and preoccupied the public for months. Only at the end did Netanyahu request that the law not apply to him.

That’s one of the tricks most characteristic of the prime minister: Let the problems inflate, create a climate of confrontation, and after the world and his brother have exhausted themselves discussing the problems, burst their balloon and emerge as the responsible adult. It’s also clear he benefits from the misbehaving backbenchers who may give Likud a bad name but repeatedly provide Netanyahu with an opportunity to look like the teacher who somehow controls the classroom.

In the diplomatic arena, Netanyahu received a gift from the gods with the election of Donald Trump in the United States. It freed him from the sane Barack Obama and brought an entirely different player into the game. Trump’s Jerusalem declaration stirred harsh comments from the Palestinians, who are helping Netanyahu claim that they’re the ones refusing, not him.

And when Trump cuts back U.S. assistance to UNRWA, Netanyahu is again the sane one. He backs this position in order to profit politically, but behind the scenes he objects because he realizes that worsening Gaza’s shattered economy would lead to a humanitarian crisis whose price Israel would pay.

There’s only one problem with this strategy. It triggers a counterreaction by people tired of the looniness – and sends them to Yair Lapid. The Yesh Atid chief is the one who gains the most from this craziness, because he’s seen as representing a kind of sanity that many Israelis long for.

Lapid’s position in the polls is improving amid the undisciplined legislation of the current coalition, which is obsessively trying to emasculate the guardians at the gate in the name of “governability.” For the time being it’s not coming at Netanyahu’s expense. For the time being.