Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid at a memorial service marking 27 years since the assassination of Prime Minsiter Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Nov. 6, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid at a memorial service marking 27 years since the assassination of Prime Minsiter Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Nov. 6, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

Lapid survives as opposition leader, but challenges ahead

With his position as opposition leader secured, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid faces a bigger challenge—coming up with a winning program.

Following a decisive defeat at the polls, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has been accused of making every mistake in the book. But in one respect he has come out ahead. Though soundly beaten by Likud Party head Benjamin Netanyahu, he has nevertheless consolidated his position as leader of the opposition. His party, Yesh Atid, won 24 seats, seven more than in the previous election and the most in its history.

“His achievement in the election is pretty impressive. I mean, he got 24 seats. It’s much more than he had before. Lapid campaigned very well. As a party leader, he did his job,” Ilana Shpaizman of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Political Studies told JNS.

This achievement, however, has been overshadowed by recriminations piled on Lapid by fellow coalition members, furious that he took mandates at their expense during the campaign. “[Lapid] behaved like a cannibalistic pig who tried to eliminate [the other parties in his bloc] in order to be the biggest one, and this is the result,” said one coalition official, capturing the general mood.

Zehava Gal-On, leader of the far-left Meretz Party, reproached Lapid in a Nov. 3 video posted to social media for failing to heed her warning that taking votes from his coalition allies would result in an electoral rout. Meretz, for the first time since its founding in 1992, failed to cross the electoral threshold to make it into the 25th Knesset, whose lawmakers will be sworn in on Nov. 15.

A senior official from Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party, a center-left alliance, attacked Lapid on Nov. 2 for failing to properly manage his coalition. “We could have brought a result of 61-59 in our favor,” he said, blaming Lapid for taking votes from his allies while they did the hard work on the campaign trail.

Although Shpaizman believes the pundits are being too hard on Lapid, most agree that he did a poor job overseeing his bloc—his failure to twist Labor leader Merav Michaeli’s arm to run with Meretz on a joint list being one of his most glaring failures. However, his party’s strong showing at least staved off a leadership challenge from a member of his own coalition.

Gantz, through his own mistakes, had lost the leadership mantle of the anti-Netanyahu bloc to Lapid. In the hopes of getting it back, he had joined his Blue and White Party to New Hope, the party of Minister of Justice Gideon Sa’ar, to form National Unity. Bolstered by the addition of former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, Gantz and his allies signaled during the campaign that they, and not Lapid, had the best chance of forming a new government.

According to Shpaizman, Lapid and Gantz are competing for the same group of voters.

“This is why, in the last couple of days [of the campaigns], you saw that they were fighting between themselves,” she said.

However, she said that in the end, the polls were right and Gantz “didn’t stand a chance” against Lapid. She said that had Lapid’s party only retained the 17 mandates it won in the last election, its margin over National Unity (12 seats) would have been less convincing, which might have led to some doubt as to who headed the opposition.

Yoni Ben-Menachem, senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), told JNS, “It was part of Lapid’s strategy to increase the number of seats of his own party—in Hebrew we say, to ‘drink’ the votes of the other parties.”

There’s a lot of dissatisfaction and back-biting among opposition leaders, who would like to see themselves at the head, he said, but “they have no choice but to accept Lapid as opposition leader because his is the biggest party. You can’t argue with facts.”

As Lapid remains at the top of the opposition heap, he has the right to steer the opposition’s program. This may prove Lapid’s biggest challenge—coming up with policies that win at the ballot box.

Critics within his bloc fail to point out that the center-left’s policies are what’s unpopular with the average Israeli voter. They prefer instead to focus on Lapid’s failures as a campaign tactician. But the left hasn’t enjoyed a real policy “success” since Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, putting into motion its two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

That height, however, proved to be the trough, as the left’s greatest achievement turned out to be a disaster. Israelis were willing to “give peace a chance,” but as the body count rose so did their realization that the attempt had failed. The 2005 Gaza disengagement proved the final nail in the “land for peace” coffin, as the Gaza Strip turned into a launching pad for Hamas rockets.

Ben-Menachem said that the security issue rose to the fore this election as a result of the May 2021 “Guardian of the Walls” operation sparked by Hamas rocket-fire on Jerusalem, the Arab riots in mixed-sector cities and the increased attacks in Judea and Samaria.

“The fact that [Itamar] Ben-Gvir got such huge support is because people felt they had lost personal security as a result of these events,” he added, referring to the Otzma Yehudit Party leader who ran together with the Religious Zionism Party to win 14 Knesset seats.

Since Oslo, “leftist” has become a dirty word in Israel, much like the word “socialist” was for many years in the United States, he said. Yet while Israelis have apparently been mugged by reality, those helming the left have not. They continue to push the same policy prescriptions, one Lapid recently doubled down on on in his announcement of support for the two-state solution before the U.N. General Assembly in September, Ben-Menachem noted.

“When people in Israel hear the slogan ‘two-state solution,’ they immediately see before their eyes [PLO Chief] Yasser Arafat, Oslo and all the traumas,” said Ben-Menachem. “Lapid made a big mistake. This message is not a message of hope, it’s a message of despair. Because this solution has been proven wrong and the Oslo agreement failed.”

As for Lapid, he says, the Yesh Atid leader has shown himself to be more than a fly-by-night politician. New parties led by popular candidates have come and gone. He has remained, building a nationwide party infrastructure, becoming prime minister and cementing his position as opposition leader. But all will be for naught if he continues to flog tired policies that Israelis have long since turned their back on, Ben-Menachem said, adding, “I don’t think they can win with such policies.”

“It’s ridiculous. If you look at the polls, most of the public does not support the [two-state] solution,” he said. (One poll released a few days after Lapid’s U.N. speech found that only 31% of Jewish Israelis supported the two-state solution.) Sixty percent to 70% of Palestinians don’t support it either, he added. “They support what they call the ‘resistance,’ which is armed struggle against Israel.”

It was only through an extremely rare event, one that won’t easily repeat itself, in which a right-wing politician, Naftali Bennett, abandoned his base to form a coalition government, that Lapid reached the prime minister’s office, Ben-Menachem noted. Without new policies that appeal to the Israeli public’s need for sovereignty and security, he isn’t likely to sit there again, he added.

If Sunday’s state ceremony marking the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination is any guide, detaching from the left’s failed policies will be a Sisyphean challenge for Lapid; the event showed that the left remains welded to the legacy of the man who brought about the Oslo Accords. In his speech at Mount Herzl, Lapid embraced that legacy ever tighter, making his own task that much harder, Ben-Menachem said.

“The fact that he wants to adopt the same ideas of Rabin will only make him lose support among the Israeli public,” he said.

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