Former army chiefs have been replaced by former army reporters as leaders of the left-wing camp. Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid worked for Bamahane magazine during his military service, while Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz and Labor chief Merav Michaeli worked for Army Radio.
The three are in their 50s, secular, Ashkenazi and Tel Aviv residents with a decade of politics behind them. The three resemble their voters and understand their hopes and fears. They will certainly dispute this claim, but their differences are smaller than their similarities.
Michaeli is currently drawing most of the media’s attention, in her attempt to save the Labor Party from oblivion. But in this election round, Lapid will head the bloc. Yesh Atid is riding high in the polls, slowly approaching the 19 seats with which it burst on the scene in 2013. The departure of Ofer Shelah didn’t fluster Yesh Atid supporters, who have a hard time identifying the candidates beyond the party’s founder and sole ruler.
Lapid deserves to lead the bloc because of three correct decisions he made. The first was his vote against the nation-state law. It’s true that he never reached out to Arab voters, and he’ll never live down his derogatory “Zoabis” comment about Arab lawmakers. But at the moment of truth, when Israel had to decide if it was an egalitarian state with equality between all its citizens or a state of Jewish supremacy, Lapid’s finger pressed the right button.
His second right decision was to agree to be number two on the Kahol Lavan slate, under Benny Gantz – not because he thought Gantz was more suitable to lead the party, but to set aside ego and honorifics for the goal of winning more Knesset seats.
Then came the moment of truth, when Gantz betrayed his voters and stole their votes to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Lapid remained outside the government. This was his most worthy decision, one that made him the bloc’s leader. This was also what Michaeli did, refusing to join the government and follow her scoundrel party members Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli into Netanyahu’s coalition.
Lapid has made mistakes in his political career, such as his flirtation with religion and Jewish tradition (“my father was an atheist and I’m a believer”), which drove away secular voters without bringing the ultra-Orthodox any closer to him. He was replaced as the representative of combative secularism by his friend Avigdor Lieberman. His overseas jaunts, designed to counter the Israeli left and the campaign to boycott Israel, only stoked ridicule without attracting any right-wing voters.
But he did show impressive political skills by maintaining his party’s base and clearly expressing his revulsion for corruption and corrupt politicians. Because of his skills, the party didn’t collapse like other centrist parties.
Lapid is managing the current campaign under a low profile, trying to benefit from the rifts on the right. He prefers that his longtime rival Gideon Sa’ar and his “brother” from the 2013 campaign, Naftali Bennett, wear themselves out in skirmishes with Netanyahu, with centrist votes seeping back to Yesh Atid. So far, it’s working, and Yesh Atid is gradually consolidating its runner-up status behind Likud.
It’s hard to envision Lapid forming a coalition, but his resolute stance against Netanyahu gives new hope to his voters. If he bolsters his diplomacy wing with Tzipi Livni, the two will present a team that could work well with the Biden administration.
Netanyahu’s continued rule poses a clear and present danger to Israel, a threat that has intensified due to the loss of control over the coronavirus and the new threats of a war on Iran. This could be Lapid’s opportunity, with history now making him an alternative. March 23 will be the day he’s tested.