Yair vs. Yair: How Israel’s PM Will Be Forced to Scrap Against a Different Netanyahu

From the moment Lapid becomes prime minister, he will stand in the crosshairs of the crown prince Yair Netanyahu, who dictates his father’s messaging. And the fight will be totally personal

Incoming Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Yair Netanyahu

The election campaign for the 25th Knesset officially kicked off on Thursday morning, and will be taught in courses on marketing, public relations and political science for years to come. The two greatest campaigners in Israeli history will enter the ring together: Yair Lapid and Yair Netanyahu, for the Israeli heavyweight title. The newly-crowned prime minister against the crown prince from Caesarea, who dictates the messaging for his father Benjamin, the head of the opposition and the Likud candidate vying to lead the country again.

There will be no bars held in the battle, and will be totally personal. Yair Netanyahu has already pinned a picture of his master’s degree diploma from Reichman University on Twitter, a dig at his opponent Yair Lapid, who lacks even a high school matriculation certificate. That message is already resounding across all Likud channels. But this is just a delicate teaser for what is expected in the coming weeks: there will be cries of collaboration with antisemitic terrorists from the house of exile in Caesarea. Meanwhile, the warning bells of corruption, the destruction of democracy, and the enforcers of niddah (sexual abstinence related to the menstrual cycle) and an imminent abortion ban will ring out from the temporary official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, just within reach of the under-renovation national royal palace, and which will hover in public view, as it always does in close election campaigns And who can forget the “ethnic genie” – the Israeli term for the rift between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews in Israel, and a favorite rallying cry for Netanyahu senior and junior – that already reared its head in the fledgling campaign, after veteran journalist Gadi Sukenik said that Yesh Atid voters were smarter than Likud voters, prompting a chorus of accusations of racism.

Yair Netanyahu at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court in April.

Last week, the outgoing prime minister, Naftali Bennett, mentioned how much he misses the old Bibi, the man who served as the country’s leader before 2015. Without a doubt, something has deeply changed in Benjamin Netanyahu’s public image. The American intellectual dressed impeccably in a suit and tie, who impressed his interlocutors with quotes from books of history and economics and with his acquaintance with high-browed professors – gave way to the populist who had his picture taken in an open collar and busied himself with mudslinging fights on social media. Instead of looking for the admiration of the masses as the class genius, as in his first term, the new Netanyahu turned to emotion, looking for love. As the criminal noose tightened around his neck, and he became a suspect and defendant, this approach only intensified. The Likud leader now links up with the anti-establishment: those who feel the system has screwed them, and that it serves people like Lapid and his voters.

It is hard to know what really goes on inside the Netanyahu family home, even after the testimony of their former confidant Nir Hefetz in the corruption trial provided a peek into their inner circle. Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that the son was the driving force behind the father’s new public image: Yair is the screenwriter and director of the “emotional Bibi,” the vigorous Twitter fighter who replaced the alienated and arrogant diplomat.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu looks at a message from son Yair, this month.

Lapid comes to the fight of his life against Netanyahu, father and son, after demonstrating impressive bouncebackabillity and deftly clearing rivals and partners alike from his path to the premiership. Sometimes with brutality, and often gently, such as with Bennett, who he moved with hugs and caresses. His outgoing partner in the “alliance of brothers,” the most important political force that stood against Netanyahu in the past decade, is different from Lapid in one key way: patience. Bennett knows how to focus on the target, but gets bored quickly. In college, they said about him that he studied for the psychometric entrance exam for three days and got an 800, a perfect score. In his first year of law school, he was the outstanding student in his class, until he became consumed by his first start-up in the summer. Since then and until he finished his degree, he made do with fulfilling the minimum requirements. This is how he hopped from assignment to assignment until he reached the highest post in the land. Once again, he became bored with the exhausting day-to-day upkeep and the conversations with uninteresting people, and ended up quitting.

In comparison to Bennett’s restless running, Lapid is a patient marathon man. He was that way in the media, and that’s how he acts in politics: “Staying on the wheel” and trying to learn from mistakes. He realized that leadership is acquired at the moment in which you need to take a side. This moment for Lapid occurred on July 19, 2018 during the final vote on the Nation-State Law. Lapid voted against the quasi-constitutional bill, and has since stood at the head of the left-wing bloc, even though his political home was in the soft right, and in spite of his demonstrated aversion to leftists. This move showed that the political strategy that will lead him to the top is much more important to him than the inclinations of his heart. Nevertheless, Lapid has been careful not to look too leftist. Just on Wednesday, he praised the return of Ben & Jerry’s to West Bank settlements: “The antisemites will never defeat us. Not even on ice cream,” he tweeted.

Lapid will not have a grace period as prime minister: not 100 days, and not even 100 seconds. From midnight, when the convoy of cars filled with flashing lights turns away from Bennett and toward him, he will be placed at the bullseye of the Likud’s target. Yair Netanyahu and his retweeting friends will throw everything in their arsenal and more at him. Lapid has four months to convince his base that he is deserving and capable of leading the country, and more importantly, to bring out as many Arab voters as possible, who will decide the results this time around as well.

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