It’s now clear that the polls were wrong: Yesh Atid (Hebrew for “there is a future”) party leader Yair Lapid took many votes away from Likud and dramatically eroded the ruling party’s presence in Israel’s next Knesset. But now comes the real test: Does he have staying power?
Yair Lapid chose to spend the day after the big election celebrations at home with his family and his close friends. When he came out for the first time that day, at precisely 8 p.m., to greet the countless reporters and photographers waiting outside his house to hear him declare that he will not agree to be a part of an anti-Netanyahu bloc, Lapid looked happy and excited, as though he was still having trouble wrapping his head around his newfound status.
Lapid officially began his political career more than a year ago. He was convinced that the government was about to collapse and that he needed to hurry to organize his entry into politics before reality caught him unprepared. But his preparation was premature. The government did not collapse. On the contrary—it became even stronger several months later when Shaul Mofaz and his 28-seat strong Kadima Party joined the coalition.
Likud feared Lapid’s entry into the political arena at the helm of the new Yesh Atid (Hebrew for “there is a future”) party, mainly because of his potential to transfer votes from the Right to the Left with the image of a centrist party. All the polls that came out throughout the campaign indicated a very clear-cut conclusion: Lapid won’t take a single vote away from the Right. In hindsight, it is now clear that the polls were wrong. Lapid took many votes away from Likud and dramatically eroded the ruling party’s presence in the next Knesset.
It was important to Lapid to start at the beginning — to establish a brand new party, from scratch, and make sure that it is populated by fresh faces. His rivals mocked him during his campaign for flaunting hollow slogans, for not having the necessary experience to address the hard issues or ideology behind the question that launched his campaign—Where’s the money?—and for directing his insipid campaign at the haters of the ultra-Orthodox and middle class Tel Aviv residents.
Lapid’s image did end up taking a hit. November’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza made his platform irrelevant. When Tzipi Livni announced the establishment of another center-left party, Hatnuah, Lapid took a major tumble, reaching a mere six seats in one of the polls. But Lapid kept at it. He repeated the same message with the same empty slogans, and it worked. The number of Knesset seats that the polls predicted for his party began climbing steadily until Election Day—when he won 19 seats.
Nili Reichman, Lapid’s media adviser, says that “the campaign went well because, contrary to common belief, he didn’t move from the top down, but rather quite the opposite. Lapid hosted events that started out with 30 people, and then grew to 150 people and ultimately reached 700 people. He combed the country and during the course of all the meetings and conferences he realized that the issues that occupy the public’s minds are not the issues that the media talks about, but rather the cost of living, rent, etc.”
Three weeks ago, Reichman claimed that if Lapid managed to cross the 12-seat threshold and get 13 seats in the polls, then the 13 would turn into 18. “When I said it, people laughed at me,” she says.
While Lapid was traveling throughout the country, he learned just how disappointed the left-wing voters were with Livni and her decision to sit in the opposition without doing anything after winning 28 Knesset seats in 2009. He promised them that anyone that votes for him is really voting for someone who will not rest for a minute, whether in the coalition or the opposition.
Lapid’s celebrity status (up until recently he was a television host) obviously helped him during his campaign. In the southern parts of the country, people came to his campaign events even if they were just looking for a night out. They heard him, and they ended up liking him.
But Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, also got a boost from the many mistakes made by his political rivals, like Livni’s initiative to unite the center-left parties for example. According to one of Lapid’s associates, “though he is seen as a political rookie, he managed to gracefully get through two attempts at political spin at his expense: The first was Livni’s call for unity, at a time when the law no longer allowed it, and the second was Shelly Yachimovich’s call for an alternative government to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Lapid rebuffed these attempts and declared that any coalition that Yachimovich would try to forge with Livni and the ultra-Orthodox parties to bypass Netanyahu would end up being the most extortionist government Israel has ever known.
Now, Lapid and Netanyhau have exchanged messages through their emissaries, raising the possibility of the two joining forces in the next coalition. That exchange is ongoing.
The key issue that the next government will have to address is the equality in sharing the burden (mandatory service, be it military or civilian, for all citizens). For Lapid, this issue is do or die. When Lapid outlined his plan for recruiting the ultra-Orthodox to the military he was harshly criticized by the social protest movement and the “suckers encampment” protesters (a group of current and reserves soldiers who camped out in protest of military exemptions for the religious).
In his plan, Lapid suggested granting the ultra-Orthodox full exemption from service, followed by the establishment of a civilian induction center that assigns civilian service within the ultra-Orthodox community to anyone whom the IDF did not want to recruit. The rest would continue to study in the yeshivot (religious schools).
But Lapid rejected the criticism. “In our current situation, we are being screwed three times over,” he says. “Once when we exempted them from duty, once when we stuck them in yeshivot where they can’t go out and work, and once when the state has to foot the bill while they study.”
It is not clear whether the ultra-Orthodox parties will fully agree to Lapid’s plan, but there is almost no doubt that they will agree to the first part: five more years of complete exemption. What happens after five years? That will no longer be the current government’s problem. What is more, in our amazing political arena, five years very often turn into 10 or more.
The budding partnership between Lapid and Netanyahu will probably have to withstand some trying challenges in the coming years. Netanyahu is suspicious of Lapid. He needs him, but doesn’t want to be dependent on him. Lapid, as a rookie politician, may turn out to be a favorable partner, or, alternately, as someone who butts heads, like Shaul Mofaz and Yohanan Plesner did over the ultra-Orthodox enlistment issue at one time. On the other hand, so far, Lapid has proven that he is capable of learning from other people’s mistakes. Perhaps he will remember how things ended up for Mofaz and Plesner (whose Kadima Party barely met the minimum threshold of votes and will enter the next Knesset with only two seats, as opposed to the 28 seats the party held prior to the election), and draw the necessary conclusions for his own conduct.
This story first appeared in Israel Hayom and is distributed with the permission of that newspaper.