Lapid’s Future Is Now – in the Opposition

Yair Lapid is torn between his contradictory promises to sit in government and to bring about change. If he joins Benjamin Netanyahu, and it doesn’t matter in what role, he will keep his first promise and break the second. Lapid will have a hard time changing things from within the government, and he can’t build up Yesh Atid as an alternative to Likud and himself as Netanyahu’s successor.

It’s a tough decision. Lapid voters expected him to influence things from the inside and not to be hung out to dry in the opposition. Members of his faction, certainly those who filled operational roles, entered politics in order to be government ministers and heads of Knesset committees, and not to warm the back benches.

However, Likud and not Yesh Atid won the election, and Netanyahu doesn’t want to change anything. The existing social and political structure suits him just fine. He needs Lapid only to lower the price exacted by his natural partners, the Haredi parties and Habayit Hayehudi.

Despite similarities between them, Lapid is not Netanyahu’s natural partner but rather his rival who wants to replace him in the next elections. Yesh Atid was founded to change the list of priorities set by the right over the past 36 years, with settlement in the West Bank and supporting Haredi students at the top. Lapid wants to return the secular mainstream to the leadership of the country and to divert resources from the hilltop outposts and the yeshivas back to the big cities and higher education.

The 19 seats won by Lapid indicate that he has a chance. With a little more effort and a little bit of luck, Yesh Atid will draw in Hatnuah and Kadima voters and will conquer the secular fringes of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu as well as disappointed Labor supporters. The opportunity lies at his door. But in order to fulfill it, Lapid needs to be seen as an alternative, not as Netanyahu’s servant.

The moment he enters the government, Lapid won’t be able to get out, and Netanyahu will abuse him. He will push him into the Finance Ministry, and after that he will use him as the bogeyman of budget cuts and tax hikes, he will question his authority and interfere with his decisions. The pro-Netanyahu Yisrael Hayom paper will present Finance Minister Lapid as a confused rookie and Netanyahu as an experienced veteran saving the economy from collapse. The prime minister will force him to keep financing yeshivas that don’t teach core subjects on the grounds of preventing a divide in the nation, and Lapid will groan and obey while making empty threats of quitting.

One replaces the government from the opposition, not from within the government. It’s impossible to sit four years alongside Netanyahu, to be his full partner in his policies and then tell the public that the prime minister is terrible and he has to go. It’s also impossible to join a coalition for a limited amount of time and then leave it and start denouncing it. It simply doesn’t work. The Labor Party tried for years to be both Likud’s partner and rival, until it fell apart and was pushed to the margins. Yesh Atid doesn’t even have the rich historical record of Mapai to cling to. It will just dissipate, like all the previous centrist parties.

Lapid in the opposition will need to work hard to position Yesh Atid as the next party of power. He will have to present an alternative budget, fight for drafting the Haredim and appoint shadow ministers to rile the government. He will have to travel around the country as he did during the campaign and tell people that it could be different here, that it’s possible to change things, and that he just needs more electoral strength. Just as he gave up his status in the media and his generous salary in order to enter politics, he has to give up now on the Volvo and the office in order to gather enough strength to enact real change in the country. Lapid proved he knows how to be convincing. Will he also have the patience needed for the long political journey?

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