Yair Lapid’s cold start as interim prime minister

  • Yair Lapid becomes Israel’s interim prime minister, taking over after the downfall of his coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, after a year in office.
  • Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, will lead the country until the November 1st legislative elections, the fifth in less than four years. 
  • Heading into the elections, Israel’s 14th PM faces stiff defiance from former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has pledged to return to power.

Why is Lapid’s heat level cold?

Answer: As interim prime minister, Yair Lapid is assigned to lead a divided country to the polls as he faces stiff defiance from former prime minister Netanyahu, who has vowed to return to power despite being on trial for corruption and abuse of power.

On July 1st, Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, became Israel’s 14th prime minister after the collapse of the fragile coalition government with the conservative Naftali Bennett. Following the dissolution of the Knesset —Israel’s parliament— Bennett handed over the helm of the executive to the former foreign minister as part of the initial two-year power-sharing agreement that sealed the so-called “government of change” formed a year ago.

Lapid is handed over to lead a divided country in what is expected to be the most contentious election in a decade in Israel. Early polls predict that the bloc-to-bloc standoff has split the Israeli electorate into two halves, between the now interim prime minister and the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu, both wielding mirror arguments about the dangers posed by the opposing side.

The forthcoming elections could hinge on the acceptance or rejection of the precedent of including Arab parties in the cabinet, with Netanyahu attacking the move despite his own well-publicised alliances with the United Arab List as he sought to form coalitions in the past. This would probably develop into a broader choice between “a strong and stable government led by Netanyahu versus a weak government relying on the Arab Joint List party, led by Lapid.

Against this, Lapid may opt to cast the election as a contest not between two individuals, but rather between the country moving forward or backward on the basis of his successful May 2021 campaign. Namely, Lapid will target Likud’s likely coalition partners —the hard-line Religious Zionism party accused of pulling on the thread of polarization in the country—, as well as on Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.

Nevertheless, it is quite conceivable that both leaders will end up mirroring the same arguments. While Lapid will try to argue that he represents a politically diverse, stable and progressive government, Netanyahu will seek to portray himself as leading a stable and homogenous right in contrast to a fractured mosaic of parties led by Lapid. Netanyahu’s option for the moment seems to be the most preferred among the Israeli public. 

Who is changing Lapid’s temperature?

Answer: Lapid is left weakened by internal differences that led to the breakdown of the so-called “government of change” coalition that ousted Benjamin Netanyahu from power a year ago. 

The umpteenth political crisis in Israel has multiple origins, starting with the uneven nature of a government whose only common denominator was that of granting the Israeli people a government without Netanyahu. Despite the fact that, to some extent, it managed to wrest the legislature from the former prime minister, the coalition was doomed to stagnation, given the lack of a common ideological framework.

Despite this, Lapid emerged as the architect of a coalition that, in its very nature and composition, made history. Drawing on growing discontent with Netanyahu from the political sphere and positioning himself as the protector of liberal democracy and an alternative to the old and polarising Likud form of government, the new prime minister was able to assemble a coalition spanning from the nationalist right of Yamina —the party led by Bennett—, to the pacifist left of Meretz, via the centre, Labour and, as a major novelty, a political force of the Arab minority, the Islamist Ra’am.

The coalition avoided changing the status quo on Palestinian matters, given the prospect of internal disagreements, but was eventually forced to face the fact that rising tensions demand a change in strategy and began to crumble as a result. Despite the initial impression of stability after having brought the pandemic under control, economic improvements and strengthened diplomatic ties with Arab countries, the executive’s response to confrontations between Palestinians and police forces in Jerusalem, as well as the string of terror attacks brought the breakdown of the alliance into evidence.

Most recently, the government failed to secure passage on a routine, albeit vital, parliamentary vote on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. At issue is the renewal of the legislation extending, since 1967, Israeli civil rights to the approximately 450,000 Jews living in West Bank settlements, illegal under international law. Failure to do so by July 1st, when the legal mandate expires, would have resulted in the application of martial law to the settlements, the same law that applies to Palestinians under Israeli military rule.

In a minority position in the Knesset following the refusal of two MPs from his coalition and the abstention of four others on passing the law, Bennett was forced to step down amid an opposition that did not shy away from boycotting the government’s attempt to uphold Israeli law in settlements in order to force early elections. With this, the “Judea and Samaria Law” —as Israel refers to the law applicable to Israeli settlers in the West Bank— will be automatically extended until a new government is formed in November following the elections.

Surprisingly enough, leading the opposition was Likud, the right-wing party led by Netanyahu, joining Arab MPs and other conservatives in opposing the legislation that he himself had pushed through as prime minister. This situation highlights once again that, beyond the political balances inherent in any parliamentary system, Netanyahu is willing to do anything in his hand to frame the elections as a choice between him and Yair Lapid, a move that might well be to his personal advantage.

What is driving Lapid?

Answer: Yair Lapid holds out the promise of many changes in Israeli life and foreign policy to the struggling secular middle class, yet he is unlikely to introduce substantial policy changes if re-elected.

Yair Lapid is the quintessential product of Tel Aviv. The son of Yosef Lapid, a former government minister and Holocaust survivor, and Shulamit Lapid, a novelist, the now prime minister became first known not for his decade-long political career, but as a performer, as well as a television and news anchor. In 2013, his newly founded Yesh Atid —“There is a future” in Hebrew— stormed to 19 seats in the 120-seat Knesset amid a wave of middle-class frustration over Israel’s steadily rising cost of living and housing, challenges the country is currently enduring.

Despite its strong initial momentum, Yesh Atid, and Lapid as its leader, soon became criticised for adopting cautious and safe centrist positions while wavering depending on the political winds and alliances between the more ideological parties. Entertaining the appeal to soft-right voters, Lapid joined Netanyahu’s cabinet in 2013 as finance minister until his dismissal in late 2014, after a considerable drop in popularity and internal disagreements.

The party soon shifted back towards the centre, presenting in 2016 a “Seven-Point Plan for Israel” advocating an innovation-driven competitive economy —with a necessary emphasis on education and science— a robust security doctrine, and a regional consensus with Arab states while alienating the Palestinians, as well as political reforms to curb corruption and strengthen the rule of law.

Among Lapid’s more overarching demands is the need to balance Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, translated into more specific yet no less contested policies. With this, his party advocates the implementation of mandatory conscription for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to be extended to the Haredim —the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, currently exempt from Israel’s universal conscription law— in an attempt to balance the burden of both civilian and military services with the other communities in the country.

On the Palestinian front, Lapid professes support for a two-state solution with few concessions, yet maintaining the large Israeli settlement blocs, a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and a demilitarised prospect for a Palestinian state. Lapid aims to move away from the increasingly religious and extremist rhetoric adopted by Israel’s far-right regarding the conflict as it has become a major concern for Israeli society as it threatens its democratic prospects. Nonetheless, neither his statements nor the inclusion in the coalition of self-declared pro-peace parties, such as Labour and Meretz, have had any real positive impact on advancing along this path.

On the broader regional security agenda, there appears to be solid ground among Israeli political figures vis-à-vis the nuclear deal with Iran. For the current cabinet, and with the Iran portfolio under Bennett’s supervision, Israel has stepped up its military action against Iranian targets in Syria and Iran itself in an attempt to curb its uranium enrichment. This shift in strategy comes amid the stalemate in negotiations in Vienna on reviving the nuclear deal, a diplomatic track that has been firmly opposed by Israel.

Campaign rhetoric aside, few considerable successes can genuinely be ascribed to the “government of change”. In regional policy, there has been no significant breakthrough with Arab neighbours, since the fanfare of the Abraham Accords was achieved under the auspices of Donald Trump and Netanyahu. While relations with Arab countries have intensified, as at the Negev Summit in March, closer ties with Saudi Arabia were intended, yet the move did not go beyond the opening of the airspace to Israeli flights.

Nevertheless, this administration has adopted a more bipartisan approach towards the US than its predecessor, which saw Lapid step forward as caretaker PM to host US President Joe Biden on his first stop on a broader Middle East tour. The meeting was largely coloured by Israel’s insistence on Biden to further develop a more credible military option to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the reaffirmation of the “US-Israel true enduring friendship” in the shadow of widespread accusations against the US covering up Israel over the murder of trailblazing Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The November elections bear much at stake for Israelis who may see democracy slip away amid polarization and judicial control if Netanyahu is elected but things are unlikely to change for the better for Palestinians living under occupation irrespective of election results.

In this context, the lack of boldness in diplomatic terms could backfire on Lapid in an election in which everything is at stake. There have been no substantial developments on any of the fronts on which Lapid could advocate his candidacy. While Netanyahu could pride himself with the Abraham Accords and the US’s recognition of a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the coalition has not had such successes despite portraying itself as the driving force for a hoped-for change.

One year on, the government has failed to deliver a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, as many Israelis no longer view it as a feasible political outcome. With tensions rising in Jerusalem and the West Bank due to Israeli provocations —namely settlement expansion forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and Masafer Yatta, as well as the continued erosion of the Al-Aqsa status quo— Palestinians have little hope that the electoral outcome can contribute to improving their situation.

The key to elections, however, might revolve around the voter turnout of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel: the ability of the Joint List and the United Arab List —Arab parties in the Knesset— to form alliances may determine Israel’s next prime minister in a highly divided Israeli setting. Yet despite the pragmatism of Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist Ra’am party and a member of the coalition, the vast Jewish majority in Israel is not interested in giving political participation to Arab parties in the government, as the latest polls show, given the right-wing parties’ refusal to form a government with them.

This could give Lapid a window of opportunity should the election remain tight between Netanyahu’s and his own blocs, even when his potential allies fall behind the former premier’s, some not even passing the threshold of representation. Even the leverage of Gadi Eisenkot, a popular IDF general who has announced he will move into politics with a centrist party —possibly Defence Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White—, is not expected to raise enough enthusiasm to match the votes of the right.

Despite this, Lapid’s prospects are dwindling, and with it, the integrity of Israel’s democratic character. According to analysts, if Netanyahu returns to power, his main priority will be to control the Supreme Court by appointing non-independent judges who will guarantee impunity while he is prime minister in the face of the corruption trial he has been contesting for more than a year. This move, already publicised, is not opposed by his right-wing supporters, some of whom have converged in an aggressive campaign to gut the legitimacy of Israel’s judicial branch and constrain its authority.

Once again, it does not seem that the upcoming elections will focus on the occupation of Palestine, the human plight it entails, or the well-being of Israelis themselves amid skyrocketing cost of living in Israel and the country’s unstable energy situation. The elections will, yet again, turn into a referendum on Netanyahu.