Is Lapid a leader or middle management?
In the aftermath of this most recent flare-up between Israel and Gaza, supporters of Yair Lapid have found the result to their liking and, they hope, politically auspicious. Israel’s pre-emptive strikes were tactical and precise and the resumption of quiet has been speedy. Lapid, often portrayed as clueless on matters of security, has burnished this weakness on his resume. As the overseer of airstrikes and the deployment of Iron Dome, he seems more suited to be a real, rather than just a caretaker, Prime Minister. Perhaps this spot of violence will spell defeat for Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming November election. Perhaps a sufficient plurality of Israelis will see Lapid as a viable leader. This is the dream, however cautiously indulged, of his supporters in Israel and abroad.
But, what about Lapid’s conduct actually counts as genuine political leadership? Though Lapid has been praised for his prescience, pre-empting an escalation that was likely to be initiated by the other side, there is nothing in the world of foreign affairs that is less surprising than another episode of Israel-Gaza hostilities. Like clockwork, the same corrosive and unsustainable dynamic—a blockade, poverty, Islamist repression—produces the same grizzly results. Politically, little has changed since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.
None of these factors are really the fault of Lapid. And the ultimate ascription of blame for Gaza’s deplorable condition is, as is well known, a matter of acrid political and historical debate. But, even though Lapid is not to be blamed for the situation with Gaza, and even if he is to be praised for limiting the extent of the bloodshed, it is a bit exaggerated to discern genuine leadership in his conduct. This statement is not a referendum on Lapid. Rather, it is a sad statement about the sclerosis of the Israeli status quo in general.
That status quo is one where genuine political vision is absolutely unimaginable. In simply managing the conflict with Islamic Jihad, Hamas’s more militant little brother, Lapid demonstrated the leadership befitting a middle manger. He inherited a bad situation and didn’t make it worse. He kept the lid on things. Of course, he should not be blamed for the situation he inherited, or for the fact that a better outcome is hard to fathom. But, if Lapid proved his leadership chops in any way, it has only been according to an anemic standard. He has proven himself, perhaps, as someone who will not make things catastrophically worse. Such is the degraded condition of Israeli political expectations that this passes for genuine success.
The question of what to do when it seems like nothing can be done is quite the paradox. Certainly there are those who might respond with incredulity to the posing of this paradox. “Of course something can and must be done,” they might insist. “Gaza is an open-air prison! Have you not seen the lop-sided discrepancy in the number of causalities?!”
On the one hand, there is some quite right in these protestations. Gaza is an ongoing humanitarian disaster right on Israel’s border, for which Israel’s (and Egypt’s) blockade bears outsized responsibility. But, the unilateral lifting of the blockade is a pipe dream dreamt only by those who do not know or do not care about internal Israeli political dynamics. On this issue, even an unexpected electoral victory would not make Lapid much different than his predecessors. Lapid is likely to follow Naftali Bennett in nibbling around the edges of the problem—offering more work permits to Gazans in return for continued quiet.
Here again, we have another middle management type solution. A solution predicated on so-called creative thinking where the only creativity is in service of making sure that nothing changes. I think this can hardly be called creativity. But, this critique just returns us to the earlier paradoxical formulation: what can you do when it seems like nothing can be done?
Interestingly, recent arguments for a so-called moderate position have emphasized paradox as the essence of contemporary Zionism. From Ari Shavit and Yossi Klein Halevi to Micah Goodman and Susie Linfield, there has sprouted a cottage industry of books emphasizing the intractability of certain of Israel’s problems. Each author, notwithstanding some details, argues that the way to deal with paradox is simply to relish the fact of the paradox. A characteristic statement from Goodman proclaims, “arguments for both sides [Left and Right] have proven valid.” The resulting “crisis”—which is really paralysis—is thus also “valid.”
Recent praise for Lapid is symptomatic of this embrace of paradox. Lapid has effectively maintained the status quo, albeit to Israel’s slight advantage. (It is perhaps unsurprising that Lapid and Goodman’s friendship is a matter of public record). One problem with embracing paradox as the basis of politics is that tightrope walkers always have to come down at some point. The question is always when, not if. Even if you build a few malls and amusement parks up there, you’re still living on a tightrope.
Self-described moderates who claim to be stymied by their sensitivity, in equal parts, to matters of ethics and security—occupation and terrorism—have taken a certain delight in their ability to articulate the arresting challenges of Israeli politics. The problem is that the possibility of Israeli political leadership has itself been arrested by these thought games. Garbled wordplay like “shrinking the conflict” has taken the place of true political imagination. The point is not that transformative action is now possible, but that that political leadership worthy of the name cannot altogether forget such a possibility. Good leadership models purposeful action when times are uncertain and outcomes are unclear. All who believe in a better future for Israelis and Palestinians must therefore believe in a politics, from Lapid and beyond, that is better than middle management.