Yair Lapid is no longer bound by the ideological constraints of an eight-party, radically diverse coalition. That partnership has collapsed, the Knesset dispersed on Thursday, and elections were set for November 1.
Yet in his first address to the nation on Saturday night, Lapid gave a speech that few in that extraordinary right-left-center-Arab coalition would find problematic. And that was precisely his point.
In what marked the first salvo of his four-month campaign to persuade Israelis to elect him to the post he has inherited from Naftali Bennett, Lapid presented himself as the prime minister of an Israel with shared goals and values, an Israel stronger, safer and happier when it can healthily manage its inevitable internal disagreements, an Israel whose public is far more unified than its politicians have been.
He used the speech to set out some core personal credentials to an electorate of which some parts, he acknowledged, “don’t and won’t” support his caretaker government.
He reminded the watching public that he is the son of a Holocaust survivor, and thus profoundly aware — given the horrors and betrayals of World War II — of the imperative that the revived Jewish nation always be capable of defending itself, by itself.
A secular leader, he connected himself to the faith as well as the Jewish nation with Biblical quotations and snippets of history.
He asserted his consensual bona fides by referring to the two photos in his Knesset office, of Israel’s greatest prime ministers from opposing sides of the political spectrum: David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.
He repeatedly stressed his commitment to Israel’s democracy and to its Jewish character, including in one near-utopian assertion: “We all have the same goal: a Jewish, democratic, liberal, big, strong, advanced and prosperous Israel.”
What exactly did he mean by “big”? To include territory to which Israel does not currently lay sovereign claim? There was no time to elaborate. This was his opening prime ministerial sally, after all.
Lapid spoke in his familiar calm and earnest tones, but seemed most energized, toward the end of the brief address (less than 10 minutes), when he talked of the extremism that “flows like lava” from Israel’s politics into its streets.
Almost the entire speech was a case of Lapid differentiating himself from his November 1 election challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu. He began by thanking Bennett for Thursday’s orderly transition of power — an unstated contrast to Netanyahu’s failure to honor his 2020 prime ministerial rotation agreement with Benny Gantz, and to his less-than-welcoming 30-minute transition meeting with Bennett. But the passages on the violence and viciousness in national politics were his angriest and most compelling, and were arrowed unmistakably at the Likud leader.
“The great Israeli question is actually why, in a period in which we have wide national agreement on all the important topics, the levels of hate and anxiety within Israeli society are so high? Why is polarization more threatening than ever?” Lapid asked.
Israel’s politics have become increasingly extreme and divisive, and they are “dragging Israeli society along with it,” he answered. “This we must stop. This is our challenge.”
Lapid chose not to mention Netanyahu — for he is evidently the antagonist who must be defeated but must not be named.
In Lapid’s telling, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, the opposition leader who pulled apart his painstakingly constructed coalition, is not merely the interim prime minister’s political nemesis, but the raging, divisive impediment to an Israel both secure and peace-seeking, thriving economically and leaving nobody behind, ideologically diverse but mature in handling its internal disagreements.
Lapid opened his campaign on Saturday with a civil but crushing assault on the longest-serving prime minister Israel has ever had. Netanyahu can be relied upon to hit back, and with less civility.