Two weeks ago, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s habitual center-left hopeful over the past decade, confided with a personal friend that Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, was not interested in running with her on the same ticket for the upcoming general elections, to be held on March 23. This was surprising, given that recent media chatter had claimed Lapid was interested, whereas the former foreign minister was mulling her options.
By Monday last week, Livni had made a public announcement that she would not be taking part in the elections. “Not every option reported was actually on the table,” she said.
Truth is, Lapid had not spoken to Livni in recent weeks; quite possibly she concluded that he had no interest in joining forces with her from the simple fact that he did not make the call. She shouldn’t take it personally, though; it’s not her, it’s him.
For the past six months, Lapid has been told in every TV studio and everywhere else that he will never become prime minister, that he lacks the public’s support. “Lapid is a victim of a glass ceiling too low for his high ambitions,” pronounced an op-ed published in Ha’aretz last September.
The impression was greatly bolstered by Ofer Shelah who, with seemingly no advance warning, turned on his decades-long best friend and announced Lapid has no chance while he, Shelah, can lead Yesh Atid back into government. Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, Lapid’s partner in the opposition for the past year, also reached the public conclusion that Lapid’s path leads nowhere.
“In the current framework, we’ll make no progress,” Ya’alon said two months ago in a TV interview, where Lapid heard for the first time of Ya’alon’s intention to split from Yesh Atid and run in the elections under his own party banner, Telem.
Impressions are quickly cemented in politics; they are much harder to alter. And it takes enormous resilience and quite a bit of self-confidence to not simply accept them. Passing these trials and tribulations, set by his closest allies, Lapid has proven he is more ready to be prime minister than previously imagined.
It’s worth reflecting on what Lapid endured over the past year: it would have broken the strongest among us.
Whatever criticism can be levied against him, Lapid has built – since founding Yesh Atid ahead of the 2013 general elections – a well-grounded party, with a highly functioning organization and an impressive network of activists.
In Israel, fledgling parties such as Yesh Atid normally disappear as quickly as they appear. What remains of Tzomet, the once fashionable party headed by former IDF chief of staff Rephael Eytan, which won 8 seats in the 1992 elections? Who remembers Yisrael Ba’Aliya, founded by Natan Sharansky, which won 7 seats in 1996? There are countless other flash-in-the-pan parties that came and went.
But not Yesh Atid. Heading towards the April 2019 elections, the party was well established and on solid ground. Lapid had built a lasting brand. And then he bestowed all its advantages upon the new rising star in Israeli politics, the great White Whale, the man of the hour, karaoke loving, ol’ blue eyes Benny Gantz.
It’s easy to forget this today, but Blue and White was loosely stitched from the get-go. The unity presented by the “cockpit” members – the four heads of the alliance, three of whom are former IDF chiefs of staff – photographed well, in UNIQLO jackets, but veteran political pundits were quick to point out this was a partnership running on borrowed time.
Yet none was more enthused, more committed to Blue and White’s success than Lapid. And when measured by its election results, the alliance proved more than worthwhile for all involved. Over the past decade, no party with the exception of the Likud, which is headed by Israel’s longest-running prime minister, enraptured so many voters, and not just once but thrice.
Lapid’s loyalty to Blue and White was exceptional in political terms. Alongside three assertive generals, Lapid put his ego aside and worked tirelessly to promote and foster the new brand. All that Lapid learned from building Yesh Atid, he implemented at Blue and White.
And then came that big betrayal.
“Netanyahu and Gantz said forming unity government; Blue and White collapses,” read the headline on March 26. Years from now, when they teach the history of politics in Israel, that day – when Gantz and half of Blue and White’s MKs elected to go against their single most important election commitment, to never sit in a coalition with Netanyahu – will still be remembered as one of the most dramatic in the Knesset’s history, a watershed event for the country.
And if one million voters felt betrayed and heartbroken, one can only imagine what Lapid felt. It was hard not to feel empathy for him that day. This was a rude awakening.
Silence is golden
Lapid made a choice back then, one that he made again at other junctures over the past ten months – and with the benefit of hindsight it could be said that if he ever does become prime minister, that choice was the turning point in his political career. But it was also a choice so baffling that it led some of those around him to conclude he could never become prime minister.
Lapid made the choice to remain silent.
Under normal political circumstances, an adversary betrayed by an ally would make a meal out of the situation. No one would have thought it strange had Lapid gone on a round of interviews trashing Gantz and attacking him personally; had he briefed reporters with off-the-record material about his former party allies turned foes; had he targeted them in a smear campaign. After all, he had a captive audience of betrayed voters. The populist choice, surely, would have been to respond in kind to such a betrayal.
But Lapid maintained silence. He didn’t badmouth his ex-colleague; he avoided vitriol. In fact, when he spoke of Gantz, he did so with a measure of sadness, almost compassion, never forgetting to point the finger at the real villain of the story, Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz, in Lapid’s narrative, was the victim; a terribly naïve man who had caved under pressure and ignored all warnings.
Even in the past couple of months, as Gantz has become a ridiculed figure and possibly the least liked politician by the center-left – second only to Netanyahu, though not by much – Lapid continued to avoid denigrating his former partner. In interviews in the final weeks before the party lists closed on February 4, he even allowed for the possibility that the two might join forces again to run on the same ticket, though deep down he must surely have thought he’d rather go back to his early career as an advertising model than reunite with the purported ally who had so definitively proved he could not be trusted.
In the first few months after the Gantz-Netanyahu government was formed, Lapid’s silence cost him several points in the polls. He wasn’t making a mark as leader of the opposition. Yamina head Naftali Bennett took the lead on criticizing the government’s handling of the coronavirus health and economic crisis and thus became Netanyahu’s primary challenger.
That silence – the fact that Lapid didn’t latch onto Netanyahu and Gantz’s failures as aggressively and effectively as Bennett did – led many to think Lapid lacked the necessary drive and could not engage the wider public. Polls showed Bennett was siphoning his potential voters.
Bennett’s Yamina party became the second largest in the polls, clearing the 20-seat bar. Bennett, who had an amicable relationship with Lapid back when the two served in Netanyahu’s government between 2013-2015 – the two often referring to each other as “bro” – seemed to seize the opportunity whereas Lapid was missing it.
This led Shelah to conclude that Lapid would never be the one to challenge Netanyahu, that he wouldn’t rise above the 15 seats the polls were predicting, and that he wouldn’t be a central player in any attempt to form a new government after the elections. Shelah, once considered Lapid’s best friend and closest confidant, called on Lapid to hold primaries for the leadership of Yesh Atid and announced that he himself would be running against the party’s founder and best-known stakeholder.
In the event, Shelah subsequently left Yesh Atid to form his own party – and last week announced his withdrawal from the electoral race, having failed to garner any support in the polls.
It’s easy to ascertain in hindsight that Shelah made a mistake, but there really was no telling whether or not Lapid would ever hold primaries in his party. Lapid has often said he does not believe this is a good election method, as it brings along too much internal party politics and dirty dealing (not to mention outright corruption and funding misappropriations).
One thing is clear: Shelah gambled and lost. Hitherto one of the most respected left-wing politicians, he has now quit politics altogether.
Shelah’s behavior, one can imagine, deeply offended Lapid. But he made the same choice: to remain silent.
Not once did Lapid lash out at his erstwhile friend in public. He promised not to utter a bad word about Shelah, and stuck by that – in interviews and in briefings.
And when Ya’alon, too, announced he would not be running with Lapid – the Yesh Atid leader again remained silent. He didn’t tear into Ya’alon either, as the Telem leader broke away, failed to win support, and similarly crashed and burned.
In a year where Lapid constantly got slapped, he also constantly turned the other cheek.
While this was perceived by many in his surroundings as his greatest weakness, it now looks more like his greatest strength – and possible proof he is actually cut out for leadership: he never panicked, he showed patience and self-belief, he maintained his composure.
Before our eyes, Lapid has matured into a worthy and honorable politician, adopting Michelle Obama’s 2016 mantra “When they go low, we go high,” and proving what his friends and foes have long forgotten: silence is a powerful strategy in politics.
More than any other candidate today, Lapid has become the antithesis of Netanyahu. Where the prime minister incites and divides, Lapid insists on being respectable and decent. Where Netanyahu constantly lies, his opposition head is a model of integrity. This stark contrast is not trivial.
Lapid’s chances of becoming Israel’s next prime minister are nonetheless quite slim and will likely be determined by Bennett. The Yamina leader too has had a testing path in politics – falling narrowly below the Knesset threshold in April 2019 and finding himself outside parliament just six years after he first entered it. After that stunning failure, Bennett said he had learned a lesson in humility – but he has yet to prove he can indeed keep his hubris in check.
Either way, it’s not yet clear what coalition Bennett would prefer to be in: one led by Netanyahu (with Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties and the new extreme-right list), or one made up of the ‘never-Netanyahus’ (Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, Labor, Yisrael Beytenu and Meretz).
Bennett remains, after all, a member of the right-wing camp and so the former option is a more natural choice for him and his party. On the other hand, Bennett too knows that his own path to the premiership must go via cooperation with the opposite camp. He’ll likely have to face this dilemma after next month’s vote.
Regardless, the numbers are not on Lapid’s side – and neither is his bitter history of mutual loathing with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Over the past couple of weeks, when public anti-Haredi sentiment has been on the rise due to the blatant disregard of the lockdown laws and the ensuing violent clashes with police forces, Lapid again elected not to speak out.
Presumably, this is a tactical choice, not to further strain his relationship with the ultra-Orthodox parties who could, in turn, conceivably warm up to the possibility of sitting in a coalition with him. But this is also part of Lapid’s overall strategy to avoid incitement or dirty politics. The public really doesn’t need anyone else telling them who to hate; there are enough instigators around taking care of that.
Lapid’s difficulty with the ultra-Orthodox parties is no small matter. Eventually, if he were to become prime minister one day, both sides will need to find a way to overcome their acrimonious history. Lapid tried courting them before – including getting photographed praying at the Western Wall – but it seems he now understands he is better off biding his time. There is no doubt they will make the move towards him should he be in a powerful enough position, so once again Lapid is better off following the advice of Psalms 141: “Set a guard, O LORD, to my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips.”
Lapid’s American campaign advisers tell him he will easily win 20-plus seats next month – they reckon he is en route to 25 – which would represent his greatest personal political achievement to date. Practically speaking, however, he suspects the political battleground will likely remain as deadlocked as it has been for the past two years.
Lapid, therefore, has little to lose and a whole lot to gain. After the year he’s had – the betrayals, the letdowns and the understanding that he has no one but himself to rely on – Lapid elected to run independently, not to merge Yesh Atid with any other parties. And rightly so. For if he wants to prove he is ready to lead, he must first achieve an unprecedented level of public support with no help from others.
Ya’alon claimed in multiple interviews that Blue and White would not have earned so many Knesset seats had it not been for his Telem faction’s involvement. Shelah claimed in various interviews that he was the central architect of Yesh Atid’s past successes. Lapid rightly feels he’ll be better off without the pair of them, and any other fleeting partners, this time.
Benny Gantz, Gaby Ashkenazi, Yoaz Handel, Zvi Hauser – so many have taken credit for Blue and White’s phenomenal successes in the three previous elections, but refuse to bear any responsibility for its collapse. Lapid doesn’t need any of that after March 23.
He doesn’t even need the help of Livni, despite or perhaps because of her track record of clever partnerships that register success at the voting booths.
What Lapid needs is an achievement wholly credited to himself – clean, straightforward, impressive – even if it ends up being “just” 20 seats and not 25, and even if he won’t be the next prime minister. In the long run, that’s his only route to the highest office, his only way of shattering the glass ceiling once and for all. The cracks are already showing.