‘Netanyahu Is Playing With Fire With the Democrats’

As Israel goes to the polls, the country’s opposition leader sets out the risks Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection would pose to ties with the U.S.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Artur Widak / NurPhoto / Getty

Today, Israel will hold its fourth election in two years. This is a sign not of democracy on steroids, but instead of acute dysfunction, a semipermanent paralysis brought about, strangely, by the extreme stability of Israeli voting patterns: Neither the incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu, nor his various opponents have been able to change enough minds to build a durable parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009 (and served an earlier term from 1996 to 1999), is currently standing trial on bribery and fraud charges, and he is not paranoid to believe that an electoral loss will light a pathway to prison. (Such a loss would not result in mourning among his American critics, including many liberal American Jews and most Democratic Party leaders, who loathe Netanyahu for disrespecting Barack Obama and venerating Donald Trump.)

Netanyahu is known for his canniness. He has outsmarted a generation of competitors from within his own Likud Party and from across the political spectrum. He has a plausible plan to remain prime minister: an alignment of convenience with a combination of far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

The consequences of continued Netanyahu rule are potentially profound. The commentator Yossi Klein Halevi, writing in The Jerusalem Post, argued that Israel’s COVID-19 experience—the country struggled to contain the coronavirus’s spread, but is currently running the world’s most successful vaccination program—has provided Israelis with “a terrifying glimpse into failed-state Israel.” He went on, “The government’s impressive success in vaccinating the public cannot obscure its otherwise abysmal record. A chaotic and almost laughably incompetent administration lost the trust of the public and failed to impose its authority, strengthening a defiant ultra-Orthodox state-within-a-state.”

The biggest threats to Netanyahu include parties led by two Likud defectors and the centrist Yesh Atid Party, the second-largest party in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Yesh Atid is led by Yair Lapid, a former television broadcaster and finance minister. Lapid might not become prime minister after this election (even he acknowledges that he has only a “fair chance”), but he has proved to be a resilient leader, one who has been serially underestimated but who now causes Netanyahu significant worry.

I called Lapid last week to ask him to explain the convoluted nature of Israeli politics, and Netanyahu’s uncanny ability to save himself at the last moment. We also talked about the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is in danger, he said, if Netanyahu continues his seemingly endless reign.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You think you can win the prime ministership this time?

Yair Lapid: I think we have a fair chance. But it’s too complicated. Our system is so much different than yours. One good thing about the American system is that you know who is president on the day of the election.

Goldberg: Wait, are you making a joke?

Lapid: Okay, not Bush v. Gore, or Trump and Biden.

Goldberg: I do get your point. No crazy coalition-building each time. So how does Netanyahu do it? How does he keep his job election after election?

Lapid: He was the first one to understand that the battle in Israel is not between right and left, even though he uses these terms. He made the battle between Jews and Israelis. The tension between the two identities. He’s exploited it well.

Goldberg: Please explain.

Lapid: The Jewish people come out of the Holocaust with two different, contradictory sentiments. One is that we just have to survive, we can’t trust anyone, we need a strong army—we just need to survive. We saw what happened to us when we didn’t have a country of our own. The other sentiment is that we need to have liberal values, be part of the civilized world, in part because we know what happens to us when the world becomes uncivilized.

Goldberg: This has always been the tension.

Lapid: Yes, until Netanyahu. These two impulses contradict each other on a daily basis. This is the basic tension of the State of Israel. Bibi was the first one to come and say, “This isn’t a choice. This is just about survival. We don’t have to live with this tension.” This is a very powerful temptation for people. He’s a skilled man, and this has worked for him.

Goldberg: You think he’s the innovator here?

Lapid: Ben-Gurion, Begin, Rabin—they all lived inside the tension. This tension is the reason that the United States chose a small country in the Middle East to be its ally.

Now that he’s been indicted, especially, he’s gotten closer to this movement that [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán calls “illiberal democracy.” The one problem with illiberal democracy is that there is no such thing. If you’re illiberal, you’re not democratic. It’s not a real thing; it’s just a catchphrase. If you’re the leader of a democracy, you have to protect democratic values. He doesn’t care about these anymore.

Goldberg: The Israeli people are about to give a guy under indictment a lot of votes. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Lapid: In this world today, truth has become just another alternative. Technically speaking, our Supreme Court says until you’re convicted, a prime minister is allowed to run and serve. The reason there’s no law against this is that no one ever thought it was a possibility. It’s totally crooked.

Goldberg: How does he do it—maintain the loyalty of his followers?

Lapid: He tells them there’s a conspiracy against him, and them. That secret elites are behind the indictment—that they hate the Israeli right. It sounds ridiculous from the outside, that there were 1,500 people who were involved in investigating and preparing the indictment and that they were all part of a conspiracy.

Goldberg: Did he learn from Trump or did Trump learn from him?

Lapid: I’ve warned myself not to go there. But I will say that his first term was in 1996 to 1999, and then he was elected again in 2009. This is before the era of all the populist leaders. He is a classic charismatic populist. You can compare him to whatever charismatic populist you want.

Goldberg: You say he’s fooling everyone, but there is something to his argument. You’ve got the Syria catastrophe; you have Hezbollah, with tens of thousands of rockets on your northern border; you have Hamas in Gaza; you have malevolent Iranian intentions. Maybe it’s reality that’s on his side?

Lapid: You need to explore the secret of Israeli strength. How come a nation of 9 million—7 million of them Jews—in a dangerous neighborhood, has been the strongest country in the Middle East? The answer is we took on ourselves the responsibility of the tension that I described. We said that we are part of the Western world, we would have the energy of the democratic counties, we would become the “start-up nation.” This is like asking why the United States is a stronger country than any other, even though there are more than a billion people each in China and India.

Goldberg: But he’s not lying when he says that Israel has dangerous enemies on its borders.

Lapid: I disagree with people who say that the only way to fight the culture of death and terror is to become like those countries. The only actual way to fight the culture of death and terror is to try to be the opposite of that culture. To be part of the Western democratic tradition.

Goldberg: Why has the left in Israel more or less collapsed?

Lapid: First of all, Israelis read history. We have offered the Palestinians a state of their own three times already. If you read history, you see that the main goal of the Palestinian national movement is to destroy Israel rather than build their own nation. I wish it were different. I’m for a two-state solution, but only if there will be a peaceful Palestine on the other side. I don’t want another terror base on our borders.

I don’t blame Israel or Israelis for wanting to continue to exist. But the left said that we have to make a deal because it’s our fault. And the majority of Israelis, including me, say it’s not. Going back to our home, going back to Jerusalem—this is not our fault. And doing it from a point of strength—this can’t be wrong, especially after the Holocaust.

Goldberg: But the left is correct in saying that a compromise is in Israel’s best interest, no?

Lapid: The Israeli right is saying that it’s not our fault and therefore we don’t have to do anything about it. The Israeli left says that it is our fault and therefore we have to do something about it. What we in the center are saying is that it’s not our fault and yet we have to do something about it, for our own good.

Goldberg: If you were prime minister, how would you manage the U.S. relationship?

Lapid: Netanyahu is playing with fire with the Democrats. You cannot affiliate the State of Israel with just the Republican Party, or with just a certain group of the Republican Party.

Goldberg: You mean evangelical Christians?

Lapid: Yes, and hard-core Trump supporters. I said this in the past: History shows that we’re going to see a Democratic Congress and president. We have all three now—Senate, House, White House. And these are angry Democrats. They didn’t miss the fact that in the midst of a very tense election campaign in the U.S., Netanyahu decided to build something called Trump Village in the Golan Heights, and they felt that this was interfering in their own politics. And I’ve neglected the most crucial moment, the Netanyahu speech to Congress in 2015, which was a slap in the face of a Democratic president and, by the way, a Democratic vice president named Joe Biden.

Goldberg: Do Israeli voters care?

Lapid: Israelis tend to be confused by the fact that America is a more polite nation than we are, but behind the politeness, Americans don’t tend to forget. And you know that politicians don’t forget people who took the other side in their campaign. I see no way for Netanyahu to create the kind of relationship we need with the Biden administration. I wouldn’t move Israel from a Republican affiliate to a Democratic affiliate; I just want to return to the bipartisan status that we’ve traditionally had.

Goldberg: You’re not going to be prime minister unless you build a coalition with some people well to the right of you.

Lapid: In our system, we have governing coalitions, and they’re built on disagreement. If everyone agreed with me, they’d be members of my party. I’m not sure we could have built a coalition a couple of years ago, but COVID-19 has made this possible. We now have a crisis on our hands that doesn’t have anything to do with right or left. We need to deal with the health crisis and unemployment, the fact that so many businesses have closed. Maybe it’s possible to say that we’ll deal with two issues first—Netanyahu under indictment, and COVID. So we do this for two years and then we can go back to bitching about what’s wrong with each other. I don’t know if this is going to be as dandy as I’m describing it, but this might work.

Goldberg: You and others, even on the right, talk about the long-term damage Netanyahu is doing. How do you describe the damage, specifically?

Lapid: He made us hate each other. Israel is a country of immigrants, like the U.S. There are always going to be tribal tensions. The job of leadership is to make it possible for people to live together and have common goals. Instead of doing this, he has used hatred in order to maintain his rule. He has damaged our ability to live together, and he did this on purpose, because he is a cynic.

Goldberg: Yossi Klein Halevi, in his endorsement of you, has argued that Bibi has given in to the ultra-Orthodox mini-state within the state. He argues that if Bibi wins again, the “start-up nation” Israelis are going to get frustrated and turned off and begin to leave.

Lapid: I understand the sentiment. But I think that Israel is the greatest thing that ever happened to the Jewish people, and still we’re going to have some difficult times. But look, my grandfather died in the gas chamber. My father grew up in an Israel that was poorer and had more problems than we have today. I think the Israeli way is to confront problems here until we solve them.