What You Should Know About Yair Lapid, The Man Just Tasked With Trying to Replace Netanyahu

Can he succeed? And what will happen if he does?

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid in anti-graft campaign ad. Only in Israel can you run an ad featuring a Jewish politician standing next to a giant pile of money and it genuinely not be anti-Semitic.

Last night, Benjamin Netanyahu officially ran out of time to form the next Israeli government. Unable to muster the number of Knesset seats required, he was forced to return the mandate to Israel’s president, who today bestowed it on a new contender: opposition leader Yair Lapid.

Before we talk about who Lapid is and his chances for success, though, we need to make this important announcement:

OK, now that the football has been properly spiked, back to business.

Who is Yair Lapid?

I’ve interviewed Lapid multiple times, in part because I hope that if he’s in the news enough, people will finally learn how to pronounce my name, and in part because I’ve long thought he’s been perennially overlooked by a media in search of more incendiary Israel storylines. For nearly a decade, prognosticators have predicted the demise of Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, and for nearly a decade, Lapid has outperformed many politicians who get many more headlines.

A former journalist and TV presenter, Lapid created Yesh Atid as a third-way party between Israel’s traditional left and right. It’s important to understand that this project was not about averaging both sides and picking a moderate middle point. Instead, Yesh Atid was more about adopting different compelling aspects from the right and left to create a new synthesis that Lapid believed better represented the Israeli mainstream. The goal was to include more voices, rather than exclude.

Outside observers scoffed at this notion. Some dubbed Lapid a flip-flopping squish. Others pointed to the long history of failed Israeli alternative parties—including one founded by Lapid’s own father. In 2013, the editor of one of America’s most prominent publications wrote an entire cover story about the future of Israeli politics, and didn’t even talk to Lapid. In the next election, Lapid’s party won 19 seats, second only to Netanyahu’s Likud—and today, he is in the position to dethrone him.

What does Lapid believe?

He’s constitutionally anti-extremist. When Lapid became opposition leader a year ago, I did the first live on-camera English interview with him. You can read the transcript here. Here’s how I summed him up in this newsletter at the time:

Among the many things that struck me in the interview was Lapid’s very different understanding of how people work and how politicians should serve them. He’s an avowed centrist, but to him, this doesn’t mean simply squaring the difference between two sides. It means recognizing that most people hold a complicated mix of commitments and that a politician’s job is to negotiate and balance those commitments—for example, liberalism and nationalism—within a society. We need fewer “theories,” he told me, and more leaders who understand a country “more as a managed conflict and less as a battle between two sides that want to kill each other.”

To Lapid, places like cable news and Twitter, dominated by partisans and people paid to have strident ideological positions, don’t reflect how most people live their lives. “It is not authentic to be an extremist,” he told me. He has premised his political career on that assumption, and despite innumerable naysayers, it has been quite a successful one.

This philosophy is perhaps best expressed in a line from one Yesh Atid’s election ads: “You can’t talk from morning till evening about how much you love this country if you hate most of the people that live in it.”

In practice, Lapid’s inclusive yet anti-extremist worldview has led him to some significant stances which would not be coded as “centrist” by those who misunderstand what he means by the term. In our interview, for example, he nonchalantly equated extremist Arab politicians in Israel who support terrorism (against Jews) with extremist Jewish Israelis who support terrorism (against Arabs):

…Arabs in this country—20% of Israeli citizens—are not formed the same way, the same way the Jews are not! I mean, yes, there are within the supporters and even some of the Knesset members of the Joint Arab List, people who are supporting terror, and these are the people who you don’t want to be in dialogue with and you cannot accept the fact that they’ve been saying publicly that they support Hezbollah and Hamas. But you also have within the Israeli extreme right people who support terror and you cannot accept this either.

Seeing himself as representing the non-extreme mainstream, Lapid felt perfectly comfortable making this equation, which would be anathema on the Israeli right.

He has actively courted Israel’s Arab parties and voters. In the most recent election campaign, Lapid has spoken pointedly about Israel’s failure to serve its Arab population. As the Times of Israel reported in February:

It’s “right,” he said, “for the country to invest in Arab neighborhoods the same money they’re investing everywhere else, in housing, in schooling, in the health system. This should be — it’s just the right thing to do.”

He added: “I travel quite a bit. I’m always a bit ashamed when entering an Arab city or an Arab town in Israel and seeing how the roads shrink and how the infrastructure [worsens]. Civil equality is part of what countries should do. And we don’t.”

He noted that Israel spends about 25% less on Arab children in school than Jewish ones.

“This is just not right,” he said. “You don’t get to do this if you consider yourself a just country. We cannot sit in Zichron and look at Fureidis and say [to ourselves], these are second-class citizens. There are no second-class citizens in a country that respects itself.”

Since the election, Lapid has successfully coordinated with Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party, to block Netanyahu’s moves in the Knesset, putting Abbas on several key parliamentary committees in the process. Simply put, this sort of open Arab-Jewish alliance was unheard of in Israeli politics—until now.

He has subordinated everything—including his own ambitions—to defeating Netanyahu. As discussed, Lapid painstakingly built an entire political movement over the last decade, including grassroots branches across the country. But in 2019, when a neophyte non-politican named Benny Gantz entered the arena to challenge Netanyahu, leaning on his credentials as Israel’s former top general, Lapid ultimately handed him his party apparatus and agreed to play second fiddle. Together, they formed the Blue & White party, which fought Netanyahu to a draw in consecutive elections, and only collapsed when Gantz flipped on Lapid and joined Netanyahu in a unity government to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

This time around, Lapid has once again subordinated his own ambitions to the task of beating Bibi. In order to make an anti-Netanyahu government possible, he has publicly offered to let a right-wing rival go first in a prime ministerial rotation, even though Lapid won far more Knesset seats than any other anti-Netanyahu party. Whether Israel will finally oust Bibi may depend on whether Lapid can successfully broker such an odd alliance.

Will Lapid actually manage to replace Netanyahu?

This is Israel’s fourth election in two years. The reason for these reruns is two-fold:

(a) Israel has an anti-Netanyahu majority
(b) The anti-Netanyahu parties disagree on everything except Netanyahu, and so have not been able to form a government together, leading to a stalemate and repeated elections

Lapid’s success hinges on whether he can overcome this collective action problem, corralling the Israeli right, left, and center—Jewish and Arab—into an unwieldy alliance than can finally oust Netanyahu. As head of Blue & White, Benny Gantz failed to accomplish this in successive elections, but Lapid enters with certain advantages. First, he is a better politician than Gantz, who had no political experience and was ultimately lured into a doomed unity government with Bibi. Second, Lapid benefits from Gantz’s failure in that unity government (Netanyahu promised to rotate the top job with Gantz, then collapsed the coalition rather than preserve the agreement). All the anti-Netanyahu parties have seen what happens when their faction fails to unite or makes a devil’s bargain with Bibi: Netanyahu wins by default.

The best bet remains that Lapid will fail and Israel will head to its fifth election in 2.5 years. But if anyone can pull off the task of forming such a Frankenstein government, it’s Lapid.

What would that government look like?

It would be … weird. In order to sell an anti-Bibi unity government to right-wing voters, Lapid will need a right-wing frontman. That man is Naftali Bennett, former Netanyahu protege, settler leader, and head of the nationalist Yamina party. You can read all about him in this 2019 piece of mine.

Lapid’s proposal would let Bennett go first in a prime minister rotation, despite Bennett getting just 7 seats to Lapid’s 17. But in deference to that disparity, the ministers of the government would be disproportionately from the center and left. And the entire edifice would depend on the outside support of Israel’s Arab parties to keep it in power in parliament.

You can see why this might not work.

In an optimistic scenario, such a government would shelve hot button issues and focus instead on areas of Israeli consensus—coronavirus recovery, social issues, and religion and state—that have been neglected under Netanyahu’s rule.

In a pessimistic scenario, this government would be unable to function, bogged down by its incompatible components, and consumed by members constantly jockeying for position against each other for the inevitable next election in a post-Bibi world.

But that’s for tomorrow. For now, Lapid has 28 days to try and solve the Rubik’s cube of Israeli politics. If he does, it will be one of the most remarkable feats in Israeli political history—and just the beginning of his problems.

Thank you for reading this edition of my newsletter. My goal is to explain complicated topics like these in plain English, without simplification or condescension. If you liked what you read, and want to support this work, please do share and subscribe: