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For the First Time, I Thought of Yair Lapid as Prime Minister

Perhaps a centrist emergency government can still save Israel from massive systems failure.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in the Knesset with members of his party, February 27, 2017.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in the Knesset, Feb. 27, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

I hope my friends on the left will forgive me – once they get over their shock – but this week, for the first time, I thought of Yair Lapid as prime minister. Not because of his personality or policies, which I won’t deal with in this article, but because of one solitary sentence that he said in a Friday night television interview, which caught my attention. If I win the elections, Lapid said, my first phone calls to potential coalition partners will be to Likud and Labor. We need a government that represents our unity, he added, not our division.

I know all of the immediate Pavlovian responses, which I've enunciated for many years. It’s a false unity. The gap between the sides is too big. A unity government is a guarantee of paralysis. The partners to such a government will be occupied with mutual sabotage and will constantly eye early elections. As soon as there is a chance for a breakthrough in the peace process, the government will collapse. And so on.

It’s been like this for almost 30 years, since Shimon Peres tried to bring down the national unity government in 1990 in a failed political move enshrined in Israeli lore as “the stinking maneuver.” But the grotesque demise of that government overshadows the stellar achievements it had when first constituted in 1984, when it stopped the Israeli economy from falling into an abyss and carried out the first withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

Things deteriorated following the 1987 London Agreement that Peres, then foreign minister, signed with King Hussein, which Yitzhak Shamir derailed in what was arguably the biggest strategic mistake in Israeli history. But it can’t be denied that the secret agreement violated the unwritten understanding between Peres and Shamir to maintain the diplomatic status quo, without which the national unity coalition couldn’t have been set up in the first place.

The Oslo Accords threw the status quo out the window. The left strived for a deal with the Palestinians, the right did its best to derail it, and Ariel Sharon, for his own reasons, disengaged from Gaza.

Since 2015, Israel has been led by a government that is trying to bury the last remnants of a peace process while cementing irreversible facts on the ground in Judea and Samaria. While the left yearned for an American knight on a white horse – and wound up with Donald Trump – and while it continues to fantasize about a dramatic turnaround in the polls that will probably never come, Israeli society grows increasingly divided, extremist and vulgar. The free press is withering, academia is regressing, the courts are bracing for the worst and the education system is growing more fascist and oppressive by the day.

It’s true that many on the left have been predicting these negative developments for the past 50 years, from the moment the occupation started to corrupt Israel, but resting on the laurels of historical prescience doesn’t do much good.

The assumption on the left has been that the establishment of a just peace with the Palestinians will enable the rehabilitation of Israel, but perhaps its time to examine the opposing thesis: that only a strong and sane democracy is capable of truly seeking peace and of treating the Palestinians fairly. In its current critical condition, Israel requires emergency treatment, possibly with electric shocks, in order to regain its health and revert to its former self. Given the current situation in the polls, it’s possible that the only doctor on call right now is Yair Lapid.

Only a government anchored in a strong center, such as Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, can create the kind of equilibrium that would enable a partnership with both Likud and Labor. Such a coalition could invite others to join it, but it would do away with the abominable practice of both right and left to hand over the keys to the kingdom to parties that are essentially fanatic and anti-democratic, each in their own way – such as Habayit Hayehudi and the ultra-Orthodox parties – in exchange for blind support on the diplomatic front. Such a coalition could stop Israel’s rapidly progressing system failure, which endangers the country more than the lack of peace with the Palestinians.

It won’t be a national unity government but a national salvation government: It’s an emergency solution, undesirable and possibly distasteful, but one that’s crucial nonetheless.

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