High Marks for Lapid

If you’re an articulate and famous ‘outsider’ determined to stand up to the old political order, you’re going to do well. But just the once.

This is the lesson Yair Lapid, Israeli Finance Minister and charismatic chairman of Yesh Atid, has learned in the past few weeks as he seeks to enact a lite austerity budget. Last week, thousands turned out in a demonstration reminiscent of the 2011 social protests that sparked the fire in Yesh Atid’s campaign, to protest Lapid’s proposed cuts.

Despite misgivings from some members of Tzipi Livni’s center-left Hatnua party, and predictable antics from the Feiglin wing of the Likud, the budget enjoys robust support from cabinet ministers and coalition MKs.

The question is, as Yossi Verter put it, will it pass “around the family Rosh Hashanah meal?” With tax increases on middle class families, this seems unlikely. We’re going to see more anti-Lapid encampments, not less. However, it appears like Yesh Atid has held its own in the polls.

As an outside observer, it’s hard not to notice that Lapid has actually made all the right decisions. Consider the choices of his outsider colleague in Italy, Beppe Grillo. Grillo, a burnt out comedian and popular political blogger, scored an astounding 25% of the vote in Italy’s parliamentary elections. However, rather than bringing his Five Star Movement into serious coalition negotiations, Grillo decided to rant and rave against representative democracy (Grillo wants online polls to determine the fate of legislation. Clearly he has never come across the concept of ‘clearing cookies.’).

In the end, after a tumultuous two-month period largely credited to Mr. Grillo’s obstructionism, a unity government consisting of the center-left Democratic Party and the center-right People of Liberty was formed, and Enrico Letta was installed as Prime Minister. Grillo still enjoys blogging–––but he does so from the opposition benches, devoid of all influence. The Five Star Movement has been seldom heard from since, and are unlikely to reproduce their 25% showing in the next election.

Of course, one doesn’t have to go Italy to see what happens to an indolent opposition party. Tzipi Livni let Kadima languish for three years in opposition. Shaul Mofaz’s incompetence was merely the final nail in the coffin. If Ehud Olmert does not return to lead the party, it’s safe to call the chevra kadisha.

In contrast, Lapid has chosen the route of Britain’s 2010 outsider, Nick Clegg, by forming a stable government with the first-place center-right party instead of a rainbow coalition that would have included rabidly anti-Zionist MKs (in Britain, it would have meant Gerry Adams sitting through the Queen’s Speech. An amusing, but very unlikely scenario). But unlike George Osborne’s budgets, Lapid’s proposal doesn’t come close to dismantling the modern welfare state. And where it does, such as cuts to ultra-Orthodox institutions, it has been popular. Of course, it goes without saying that the hyperbole artists who allege that Lapid is jeopardizing Israeli national security are full of it.

Some will blame Lapid for his own troubles. “Why did he choose Finance instead of Education?” This criticism is misguided. Lapid would have been pilloried for not doing enough to regulate taxpayer funds that flood institutions that are de facto bullet trains to poverty. In fact, Lapid is taking heat for that. No one can live up to the expectations of an outsider, at least not in his or her time.

Lapid should be praised, not condemned for his performance in government. He has been the moderating force that optimists like me had hoped for. Two weeks ago, Lapid killed a proposal that would have required a referendum on any transfer of land to the Palestinian Authority (see Brent Sasley’s piece on why a plebiscite on peace is an odious idea).

In 2013, Yair Lapid’s Israel confronted its budget problem. Can 2014 be the year Israel solidifies its existence as the homeland of the Jewish people by reaching a two-state agreement with the Palestinians? No one knows for sure. But this is probably Yair Lapid’s only shot at history. And judging from his choices so far, he knows it.

About the Author
Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and American foreign policy in the Middle East. He can be reached at abrsilberstein@gmail.com