Benjamin Netanyahu is a survivor. He’s beaten back what looked to be near-certain defeat at the polls more than once. He’s outlasted hard-line rivals and liberal critics to become Israel’s longest continuously serving prime minister, and if he can hang on two more years, would even outdo David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s idolized founding father, to claim the overall record in the job.
And in many ways, 2017 looks to be his year.
He’s finally free of the meddlesome President Barack Obama, whose demands for a settlement freeze, critical lectures, Iran deal and failed peace talks eventually led to an open rupture with the White House. Even better, from Netanyahu’s point of view, Obama’s replacement is Republican Donald Trump, who’s just gotten a settlement-funding Orthodox Jew confirmed as his new ambassador, vowed to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — and tapped his own Orthodox son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to help him cut a deal to finally end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. As Aaron David Miller, a veteran of the peace talks under five U.S. presidents, put it recently, “Netanyahu can’t believe his good fortune.”
So why is it that a guy named Yair Lapid, whom few have heard of outside Israel, and who entered politics only five years ago, is beating Netanyahu in poll after poll these days? Is Bibi fatigue finally kicking in?
“I can’t think of any other democracy in which the same person was prime minister, or president, or head of state in 1996 is still the head of state,” Lapid tells me in an interview for The Global POLITICO, our podcast on world affairs. “So maybe the people of Israel tell themselves, ‘It’s time to say thank you and we’re moving on.’ And the country needs to move on. We’ve been stuck in the same place for quite a while now.”
The late Shimon Peres, the peacemaker behind the Oslo Accords who was beaten by Netanyahu in an election he was widely expected to win, was famous for saying the polls are like perfume, best to be smelled not drunk. Are these latest surveys showing Netanyahu’s vulnerability and Lapid’s surprising strength, for real? And do they matter at a time when Trump and his advisers actually seem to be getting serious about rekindling a peace process just about everyone else had given up for dead?
Yair Lapid has been called many things in the five years since he entered politics after a long career as perhaps Israel’s most recognizable TV anchor. An empty suit. A political cipher. An opportunist.
And also: the next big thing in Israeli politics and the cure for what ails an increasingly sclerotic democracy.
Some these days even see him as Israel’s answer to Donald Trump, a celebrity come lately to politics, with no discernible ideology and a flair for popular slogans.
Labels aside, whatever he’s doing seems to be working, and Lapid’s newfangled politics—heavy on the requisite tough talk about Israeli security but with an emphasis on good governance and boosting Israel’s economy—have improbably vaulted him and Yesh Atid, the party he founded in 2012, to first place in survey after survey over the past several months. The latest polls generally show Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future” in Hebrew), leading Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party by about four seats in parliamentary elections.
Of course, no one yet knows when those elections will be and, given the fiendishly complicated politics that come with trying to assemble a governing coalition in Israel’s multiparty system, even an outright win for Lapid’s party wouldn’t necessarily guarantee he would become prime minister, given that Israel’s increasingly influential ultra-Orthodox parties have said they refuse to participate in any coalition led by the more secular-minded, socially liberal Lapid.
Still, events are moving surprisingly quickly. After a budget deal last year, most knowledgeable Israeli political observers had expected Netanyahu’s government to last at least as long as the agreement, until 2018. But now, Netanyahu is facing a rapidly spiraling investigation into a host of allegations involving gifts and perks from big donors and trading favors for positive media coverage, not to mention new pressures from the right wing in his coalition who feel emboldened by Trump’s ascension to push for harder-line policies. All of which has led to a fast-evolving sense that elections could come much sooner than 2018, even as early as this fall.
But can Lapid really beat him?
For years, liberals inside Israel and out have wondered what it would take to oust Netanyahu. Instead, they watched nearly helplessly as the country’s Labor party, historically the main opposition to Netanyahu’s Likud, has all but collapsed—a fate not dissimilar to the old left in many European countries like Britain in recent years.
Enter Lapid, a polished talker with a lush head of anchorman-silver hair who tells me he is running as “an extreme moderate,” preaching centrism as the new populism and a sort of gauzy patriotic nationalism that tends to give his former colleagues in the world of liberal journalism fits. Lapid, who served a stint as finance minister in a short-lived coalition with Netanyahu, now tours the world as a sort of shadow foreign minister, tangling with increasingly vocal Western advocates of boycotting Israel as a result of its continued occupation of the West Bank and ongoing settlement building there. “With the world of alternative facts, the country is under attack” by advocates of the budding boycott movement, Lapid tells me animatedly, and he is at his most passionate these days taking on those who prefer beating up on what he invariably calls “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
“The country is under attack by people who think lying is just OK,” he insists.
I asked a dozen veteran observers of Israeli politics in Israel and Washington whether they thought Lapid could finally give Netanyahu a run for his money. Every single one of them agreed that “it’s plausible,” as one put it, though not yet likely. “A 50-50 shot,” said a top Israeli political analyst. “It’s wrong to dismiss him as so many people do as an empty suit, or a pretty face, or a soundbite,” one former senior U.S. official told me. “He’s doing all the right things.”
At the same time, they all remained unsure about Lapid’s famously hard-to-pin-down politics and lack of a national security background, a deficit they were unanimous in saying he’d need to compensate for by bringing in a former general like ex-army chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi or former defense minister Moshe Yaalon to his ticket.
And then, there is the real unknown—the looming investigation into Netanyahu by law-enforcement authorities, who have repeatedly questioned the prime minister for hours at a time (interrupted, during the most recent session, by a phone call from Trump). If an indictment is handed down, said another veteran U.S. official, “then it’s a whole new ballgame.”
For his part, Lapid, perhaps reluctant to step on the potential political windfall from the prosecutors, was cautious about commenting directly on Netanyahu’s legal woes except to promise in the interview for the first time a campaign focus on “clean government.” An indictment would be “terrible” for Israel, he says, meaning two prime ministers in a row under the cloud of corruption. “Anywhere in the world, when governments have been in office too long, they tend to corrupt,” he says.
For now, Lapid’s patriotism, compelling biography and cheerleading nationalism on his overseas trips are clearly playing well in Israeli politics, where the threats generally are of the existential variety and the country is still only a few years removed from its founding generation.
Lapid’s father was one of that generation—a Holocaust survivor who went on to become a leading Israeli journalist and politician after his escape from wartime Hungary. Lapid, now 53, wrote a best-selling account of his father, “Memories After My Death: The Tommy Lapid Story,” and is still known to get teary-eyed at his mention. When I ask what his dad would make of Israel’s famously divisive present-day politics, he responds with an unabashedly corny story about his father on his hospital deathbed, lecturing him, “I’m not leaving you only with a family, but also with a country.”
In this day and age of Trump and Brexit, when fiery right-wing populists are challenging for leadership of both France and Germany in hotly contested elections that have establishment types openly fretting about the death of the liberal international order, Lapid’s equally corny appeal for the virtues of “responsible” centrism can have an oddly soothing effect. Never mind the fears of a 1930s-style failure of the West, he says, projecting a certainty he may or may not feel—both about his own chances and about the democratic world’s coming rejection of extremism from both right and left.
“The center is coming back,” he insists in our interview, which takes place even as voters in the Netherlands are going to the polls to decisively reject the immigrant-bashing nationalism of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in favor of a telegenic establishment type for prime minister. “I think people are saying, ‘Wait, wait, wait. You know, this might have gone too far. Protest movements are not supposed to lead.’”
Over the past year or so, Lapid has been traveling extensively outside Israel, meeting with Democrats on Capitol Hill, with European pols like the fast-rising presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron in France, in search of his own Centrist Internationale. “You’re going to see the return of the center in the coming years,” he tells me. “So I don’t think we’re in the beginning of something; I think we’re in the end of something.”
The end that most close watchers of Israeli politics have been anticipating is a different one: the collapse of the idea of a two-state solution to the long-running conflict with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu had only reluctantly embraced the concept, and has seemed less than concerned since the latest round of peacemaking brokered by Obama Secretary of State John Kerry led to ignominious collapse a couple years ago. Since Trump’s win, the prime minister has stopped even using the “two-state” terminology, and the U.S. president has all but said he doesn’t care either way.
But the initial assumptions about President Trump and what his more pro-Israeli approach to peacemaking would bring have quickly been tested. Trump named the pro-settlement lawyer David Friedman as his ambassador and saw him confirmed this Thursday after an unusually divisive vote, but he’s backed away from his early plan to move the Embassy to Jerusalem, has reached out aggressively to Arab leaders and has publicly prodded Netanyahu not to engage in more disruptive building in disputed settlements in the West Bank, a push more or less consistent with previous U.S. policy.
When Trump’s handpicked negotiator, his longtime personal lawyer Jason Greenblatt, toured the region last week, he received plaudits for meeting extensively with all sides, including the octogenarian leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who has now received a White House invite to come to Washington in early April even as it was announced that Netanyahu will skip this weekend’s big annual AIPAC meeting in Washington.
That may well be because Greenblatt and Netanyahu reportedly tangled in hours of discussions over just what kind of settlement building Trump would find acceptable, talks that are continuing this week in Washington between aides. He even was reported to have pushed Israel to freeze West Bank construction outside already established settlement blocs, a demand that veteran peace process watchers see as key for the Trump team to make if it is serious about getting Palestinians to the table. “It seems clear the administration wants to do something,” says Dennis Ross, a top Israel adviser to Democratic and Republican presidents since George H.W. Bush, “and is prepared to work with Abu Mazen to do it,” using Abbas’ nickname.
“Trump didn’t move the Embassy, pressured Bibi to put the brakes on settlements and reached out to Abu Mazen. He seems to really believe he can be the peacemaker,” says Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Bill Clinton who with Kerry went on to lead Obama’s failed effort to negotiate between Netanyahu and Abbas. “I don’t have any other explanation.”
But Trump’s would-be peacemaking may make it a lot harder for Netanyahu to hang on politically, as just about everyone I talked with for this article was quick to point out. If Netanyahu can’t deliver on more settlement-building from a supposedly favorable Trump administration, there are plenty on his right flank poised to criticize him. And then, there’s Lapid—officially still a two-stater though he talks increasingly these days not of peace but of “separation” between Israelis and Palestinians as the goal—waiting to take advantage of whatever rupture occurs.
“It is becoming clear that the administration’s asks of Israel on restraining settlement activity are well within the range of traditional U.S. policy under previous administrations—much to the disappointment of some Israelis who thought it would be ‘anything goes,’” says Dan Shapiro, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Israel and sat in on every meeting he had with Netanyahu through the eight years of Obama’s presidency. “It is causing significant tensions within Netanyahu’s coalition.”
In the end, those politics are one of the many reasons that the Democrats who felt so burned by their own peacemaking efforts with Netanyahu remain so skeptical about any renewed Trump approach.
“The Trump guys will discover, just like we did, that it’s impossible. I spent a year of my life trying even though I didn’t think it was possible. It’s the Holy Grail; it’s the ultimate deal, and I don’t blame them for trying. But I don’t see any indication that ether Bibi or Abu Mazen is capable of taking risks necessary to get a deal,” Indyk told me.
Israeli politics means “it’s even less possible now,” he argues. “The right wing has Bibi by the throat and he cannot afford to do anything to jeopardize his coalition. Bibi cannot afford any kind of cracks in his coalition and they all know it, so they’re all going to press him and he will bend to them, he has to. No politician in Israel planning to run in next election wants to talk about peace.”
A few weeks ago, Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev wrote a column in the newspaper Haaretz titled, “For the first time, I thought of Yair Lapid as prime minister.” The piece blasted Israel’s “divided, extremist and vulgar” politics, essentially endorsing Lapid’s view that only a new centrism could save the country from the “abominable practice of both right and left to hand over the keys to the kingdom to parties that are essentially fanatic and anti-democratic.”
It may be, Shalev wrote, “the only doctor on call right now is Yair Lapid.”
This was notable for a couple reasons: first, Shalev is a smart political analyst, and until now, smart political analysts have been reluctant to actually give Lapid a chance to win; they have mostly remained believers in what Shalev tells me is the “mystique Bibi has developed that no matter what the polls say, he will win.” And second, Shalev wrote this in Haaretz, a liberal newspaper with which Lapid has developed a feud so pronounced he boycotts its reporters.
When we meet in Washington, Lapid is clearly buoyant about his political momentum—even as he shows off many of the traits his critics and would-be rivals find so frustrating.
Most of all, he is hard to pin down, whether the subject is a controversial new law blocking pro-boycott and divestment activists from coming to Israel (which he tells me he is mostly but not entirely against, while also assuring me free speech remains well protected); Trump’s peace initiative (“you know what, if you are appointing your son-in-law, then you care about this”); or his own campaign program (he will emphasize “clean government,” he says, though how is unclear).
But Lapid is also articulate, adaptive, well-read and savvy. Politically, he’s disciplined enough not to get drawn into fights he’s never going to win.
In our interview, he insists that his self-proclaimed extreme centrism is just as much an ideology as the more rabble-rousing kind. “It’s the problem of centrists all around the world,” he says. “You don’t get to say those inflammatory, very interesting things that the extremists from both sides get to say. You are talking on behalf of complexity, and the fact that running a country has to do with competing interests.”
Then again, Lapid is enough of a politician to know that nuance doesn’t make for a great campaign poster.
As we’re about to wrap up, he promises that elections really are coming this year. Oh, and one other thing: “I do think that Israelis understand that we need something that is new and clean and different,” he says. “It’s time to move on.”
In America, time for a change is a great slogan. But will it work in Israel?