While You All Were Busy With Bennett

It now looks as if the big winner in tomorrow’s election for the 19th Knesset is going to be Yair Lapid. While the media and the campaign broadcasts were focusing on the battle between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his latest model, Naftali Bennett, Lapid was conducting a focused, quiet campaign that didn’t garner too much attention. His strength wasn’t eroded by feuds, he avoided embarrassing slips of the tongue, and remained faithful to Yesh Atid’s message – “We’ve come to make a change.”

Other candidates indulged in gimmicks, personality worship and empty slogans – Bennett’s red paratroopers’ boots, the meatballs in Shelly Yacimovich’s freezer and the “strong man” staring down from Netanyahu’s billboards. But Lapid had the benefit of enormous public exposure as a journalist, television presenter and celebrity bank spokesman, so the public knew who he was long before he entered politics.

This allowed him to focus his campaign on his detailed platform for making changes in the country, centered on smashing the ultra-Orthodox “society of students” and drafting Haredim into the army or forced employment (“civilian service” ); building 150,000 apartments; tweaking the system of government; and a diplomatic platform of a security-oriented leftist or soft-rightist, the type always preferred by centrist and undecided voters.

Lapid honed in on the tastes of voters who want change as long as it’s not too drastic. These are people who love their Israeli identity and the Israel Defense Forces, but who live their lives to an American soundtrack (in a post on “What I learned from the journey,” in which Lapid summed up the campaign, he told of how he listened dozens of times to Bruce Springsteen, not to Israeli singers ). These are people who don’t love Arabs and aren’t interested in any “New Middle East,” and want peace mainly so that Israel will be accepted by the West; the types who rant about Israel’s lousy public diplomacy being the reason the world hates us.

The polls showed Yesh Atid more or less maintaining its strength from the beginning of the campaign to the end, with the various upheavals along the way – the union of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, the launching of Hatnuah by Tzipi Livni, Bennett’s meteoric rise – merely nibbling at its margins. Lapid’s outstanding accomplishment was his success in mock elections held in high schools and colleges, where his party beat out much bigger, more established parties. Young people found him to be a politician who thinks about them, talks to them, and relates to them as a sector deserving of attention and benefits, and not as a faceless mass.

Lapid’s achievement positions him as the person who could tip the scales in the next Knesset (along with Shaul Mofaz, if Kadima passes the electoral threshold ). If Netanyahu wins the premiership again, as expected, he will need Lapid at his side to give his next government a more moderate face. And if the left’s dreams come true and the blocs finish the election in a tie, then Lapid could be the kingmaker who determines the composition of the next governing coalition. Not bad for a political rookie.

Lapid is perceived as the “least left” in the political bloc that extends from Netanyahu to Hanin Zuabi. He has no personal or ideological feuds with the prime minister, as do most of the other candidates. A two-digit number of seats could enable him to hook up with Netanyahu as a replacement for Shas, and reduce the price the Likud would have to pay the Haredim.

Lapid is touting himself as a candidate for education minister, and even now his background as a volunteer civics teacher stands out. He could even learn a thing or two from the outgoing minister about how to exploit the ministry for self-advancement: Gideon Sa’ar bought the silence of the teachers’ unions that had made life hell for his predecessors, and focused on politicizing the system and making headlines, which turned him into the right’s chief ideologue and the winner of the Likud primary.

Lapid’s challenge is to keep his party united and get it through an entire Knesset term. It’s much harder to make people happy all year than it is to keep them together during the high-adrenaline atmosphere of an election campaign. It’s also hard to promise “change” when you are part of the power structure.

But if Lapid shows the same thoroughness that he has demonstrated in planning his entrance into political life – recruiting donors, building his party, writing his platform and managing his candidacy – he has a chance at advancing beyond what he has apparently achieved during the current campaign.

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