For Lapid, a battle against all odds to thwart Netanyahu’s comeback

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Provided Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid can engineer the fall of their government more effectively than they have held it together, the Knesset will next week pass the final readings of legislation to dissolve itself and hold new elections for this fall. – marking the fifth time the Israeli electorate has been dragged into polling stations since April 2019.

Snapshot polls released Tuesday night on Israel’s three main TV channels apparently showed that, as on previous occasions, the fifth election will meet Albert Einstein’s (doubtfully) definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again. and expect different results.

Four times from 2019 to 2021, the Israeli public has elected a Knesset from which no stable, enduring and fully functioning governing coalition has emerged. And Tuesday night’s polls were widely touted as showing that the current Knesset “blocs” — the eight parties in the incumbent Bennett-Lapid coalition and the four opposition parties led by Benjamin Netanyahu — will once again be “in deadlock,” with no power to muster a majority in the Knesset, and the Joint List, a predominantly Arab alliance, holding the balance of power between them.

Lazy or deliberate, this is a misreading of the preferences of the electorate. What all three polls have shown, in fact, is a surge in support for the Netanyahu-led bloc — constituting Likud, the rising far-right religious Zionist party, and the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. In the March 2021 elections, these four parties won 52 seats between them. Sixteen months later, all three televised polls put them at 59-60 seats – on the cusp of a majority in the Knesset.

Moreover, it is by no means clear that Bennett’s Yamina should automatically be counted in the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Bennett himself didn’t rule out sitting down with Netanyahu last year; on the contrary, he publicly signed two days before the elections the commitment not to sit in a government led by Lapid and dependent on the support of the Ra’am party of Mansour Abbas. Even two weeks later, after the results were released, he said “the will of the people” was for “the establishment of a stable right-wing and nationalist government”.

Bennett may or may not lead Yamina to the next election. Her longtime ally Ayelet Shaked could do just that. Whoever leads it might want to maintain some ambiguity about its preferred coalition partners to maximize its waning appeal. (Yamina votes 4-5 seats, barely above the Knesset threshold, in potential danger of extinction). Last week it was publicly clear that they would continue to resist Netanyahu’s return as prime minister, nothing so definitive can be said of Yamina.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz seen at the Knesset on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As pundits speak of an ongoing standoff, Netanyahu’s elated anticipation that he’s on his way back to the prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street after Bennett’s hugely irritating interruption is understandable – and the latest polls have done nothing to shake that confidence.

But while Bennett has chosen never to settle in Balfour Street, there will be another prime minister’s resident for at least the next few months: Acting Prime Minister Lapid. He will hold the reins of power, under a coalition agreement honored by Bennett, from the moment the Knesset dissolves, until the elections, and until a new coalition government is sworn in.

Lapid is now a 10-year veteran politician, conciliatory and quietly effective. It was he who put together the most implausible coalition in the country, and his own Yesh Atid party, 17 members strong (up in the polls), has remained loyal to him and to him (unlike the Yamina broken Bennett).

Lapid has twice shelved his prime ministerial ambitions – in 2019 teaming up with Gantz (who broke their alliance in 2020 to enter an ill-fated coalition alliance with Netanyahu), and bringing Bennett to power the last year. He waived his own speech during the raucous Knesset session last June, when Bennett was sworn in to lead the government he had painstakingly assembled. He barely spoke on Monday when Bennett announced his disappearance.

Now, Lapid is about to have his moment and rise to the challenge against the odds of turning a brief premiership into a long and substantial one.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) smiles before a preliminary vote to dissolve the Knesset for new elections, June 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu will blithely seek to discredit Lapid as a lightweight and, as he did with Bennett, as a security threat to Israel. He will attempt to smear Lapid as a proven partner of Ra’am, whom the former prime minister repeatedly demonizes as a supporter of terrorism, even though he too has sought to forge an alliance with him. He will argue that Lapid’s only path to electoral victory lies in co-opting the even nastier Common List.

Lapid will counter that his coalition and Bennett’s have sought to restore respect and harmony to Israeli politics; that he worked to heal the economy, fight terrorism, and maintain warm ties with the United States while deepening the partnership to thwart Iran. That, unlike Netanyahu, he put the national interest before the personal.

Although Lapid is proud of the achievements of the outgoing coalition, his failure to hold together will be portrayed by Netanyahu as a debacle. Although he and Bennett may be furious at the relentless pressure Netanyahu exerted on his members, the fact is that Netanyahu succeeded – that Yamina collapsed and the unreliability of other coalition members accelerated his disappearance.

Underrated by nature, Lapid will have to wage a bold campaign if he is to thwart Netanyahu’s return. He will have to credibly explain why he and his allies view Netanyahu as a real danger to Israeli democracy. He will have to point out that Netanyahu is the man who brought in Itamar Ben Gvir and his incendiary anti-Arab pyromania, and that a Netanyahu government will be toxic with Ben Gvir’s extremism. He will have to effectively debate Netanyahu one-on-one, or show that Netanyahu does not want to face him.

He will have to maximize the fact of his function; it will be the first in five times that Netanyahu has run for the post of opposition prime minister. As caretaker prime minister, Lapid will welcome high-profile visitors, starting next month with US President Joe Biden, be able to make resonant foreign trips and seek to progress towards warm relations with other actors. regional.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks at a conference hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem on June 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He will have about four months in the transitional post to establish his credibility as permanent Prime Minister – to show that a leader can be both competent and magnanimous, resolute and empathetic, and that commitments to the internal unity of the country and relentless defense against its enemies are not mutually exclusive.

Four months and multiple limitations on what he is allowed to do as interim prime minister.

Four months to reverse what the polls really show.

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