The Man Who Could End the Netanyahu Era
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid sees a global battle between centrists and extremists.
“Let us,” I said, “talk about the Netanyahu inevitability factor.”
Yair Lapid dead-eyed me as he formulated a comeback.
“Will you be kind enough,” he finally said, smiling, “to describe to the very smart readers of The Atlantic the office in which you are raising this issue?”
We were seated in the office of the Israeli prime minister. Not the principal office of the prime minister, in Jerusalem, but a satellite office at the Ministry of Defense, in Tel Aviv. Still, a prime minister’s office.
“All of the people who are saying that Bibi is inevitable are the same people who told me that I would never be able to form a government, never be able to form a coalition, never be able to build a party. I don’t think the question makes sense anymore,” Lapid said, referring to the former prime minister by his nickname. “If Bibi is so savvy, how come he’s the leader of the opposition who has lost four elections in a row, and I’m here?”
There are countless answers to the prime minister’s question. The technical answer is that the government Lapid’s Yesh Atid party formed a year ago with the conservative leader Naftali Bennett—a coalition designed to sideline Netanyahu—collapsed, Bennett having been a bit too reasonable for his former allies on the right. Bennett’s resignation as prime minister opened the way for Lapid, the foreign minister, to step in as the government’s caretaker leader.
Another answer: Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is currently on trial for graft and breach of public trust. There is no law in Israel disallowing an indicted politician to stand for prime minister—no one ever thought such a law would be necessary—but Netanyahu’s reputation for corruption and venality, as well as his crude populism, has hurt him outside his base (which resembles, in many ways, the political base of America’s preeminent populist).
Yet another answer: Lapid, an ex–television broadcaster, is more politically adroit and strategically patient than previously credited. There is also, among many Israelis, a desire for the centrism Lapid advances, on such matters as the country’s economy, on the special dispensations for its politically powerful ultra-Orthodox minority, and on matters related to its conflict with the Palestinians.
The fourth answer, which eclipses the others, is that everything in Israeli politics is chaos, and the improbable has become quotidian (the Bennett-Lapid government featured both Jewish settlers and leaders of an Arab Islamist party, for example). Come November 1, the date of Israel’s fifth election since 2019, Netanyahu could find himself returning to this office. But it is quite possible to picture Lapid as more than a caretaker prime minister. Or to imagine the rise of Benny Gantz, the current defense minister and a rival of both.
Here I will cease boring you with the dreary minutiae of Israel’s impossible politics, and simply note that Lapid is the great non-extremist hope for Israel, and he represents the best chance to keep Netanyahu from office. I will also note, in case this has not been discerned, that I’ve known Lapid for a very long time, and believe that he could conceivably bring sense to Israeli governance, light a path out of peace-process paralysis, and quite possibly prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons without turning his country into a fear-obsessed Sparta.
Lapid had just returned from Berlin when we met last week. He had gone to Germany to visit the House of the Wannsee Conference with the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz. High Nazi officials met at Wannsee in January 1942 to coordinate the “Final Solution.” Lapid brought with him five Holocaust survivors, who gave their testimony to Scholz at the table once used by Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann.
“I was trying to figure out a way to tell the world we would never forget what happened, without making this into an irrelevant fistfight about Iran,” Lapid told me. “Usually these things are connected: ‘No second Holocaust.’ But I hate comparing, in any way, anything to the Holocaust. Nothing is comparable to the Holocaust. And on top of this, nothing today could be the Holocaust, because there is such a thing as the State of Israel, which is capable of defending itself. There was a Holocaust in part because there was no State of Israel when it happened.”
To know Lapid is to know that he would rush to Germany as soon as possible after becoming prime minister. His late father, Tommy Lapid, was a Holocaust survivor, rescued as a child by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Tommy Lapid’s father, Yair’s grandfather, was murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp. Tommy Lapid was a famous Israeli politician, a former justice minister and commentator, who had a profound influence on his son’s understanding of Jewish survival.
“When we left the room, I said to the people around me, ‘Such chutzpah for my father to be dead at such a moment. How dare he?’” Lapid said.
I was curious to know how Lapid disaggregated, in his mind, the trip to Wannsee from the message he is carrying to the United Nations this week, a not-untypical message for an Israeli prime minister, as Iran approaches the nuclear threshold and as negotiations to stop it sputter along impotently. Netanyahu was expert at playing on Israeli fears of another Holocaust to ensure his political success. How would Lapid’s message—both to the UN and to Israeli voters—be different?
“On the one hand, the ultraradical anti-Israel movement says that the Israelis are victimizing themselves by bringing up Iran,” he said. “No, no, no, this is completely wrong. Iran is a member of the United Nations which openly suggests the destruction of another member of the United Nations. They mean what they say. If they get a nuclear weapon, they will use it. So we have a duty to make sure that this will never happen, and I need to do the things that will make sure nothing like this ever happens.”
On the other hand, he said, “I need to make sure that Israel is a strong liberal democracy. We left the Holocaust with two contradictory lessons. The first is: Survive, be strong, make sure you can defend yourself at all times. The second is: You have to be a moral person, and a moral country, a liberal democracy, and the only time when this is tested is when the circumstances are immoral.”
This has been a theme of Lapid’s for many years. Netanyahu, unlike many previous Israeli leaders, refused to acknowledge the tension between strength and morality. In an earlier conversation, Lapid told me that Israel must “have liberal values, be part of the civilized world, in part because we know what happens to us when the world becomes uncivilized.” He went on to argue that “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.’”
When he’s not defending himself against graft charges, Netanyahu argues that Israeli leaders to his left, including and especially Lapid, are too weak to confront Iran. (It should be noted that, in his years in power, Netanyahu also failed to stop Iran.)
“In 2015, Bibi went and gave this scandalous speech to Congress, the result of which is that Israel was not in the room when the negotiations were going on,” Lapid said. “It was a tactical and strategic failure on Bibi’s part. Bibi’s argument now is, ‘I did everything wrong. Why aren’t you doing the same?’ Over this past year, our policy was that we are not going to give up on the Biden administration, because they’re our friends, and do you know a more pro-Israel Democrat than Joe Biden? We want to be in the room, and we’re going to say, inside the room, very blunt things when we have to. But we’re going to say them behind closed doors.” When I asked him if he trusted Joe Biden to have Israel’s existence at the forefront of his mind, he answered, “100 percent.”
On the matter of the comatose peace process, I asked Lapid the question President Barack Obama often asked Netanyahu: What is the plan? What is the way forward with the Palestinians? Israel cannot be a Jewish-majority state, a haven for persecuted Jews, as well as a democracy, if it doesn’t cease its occupation of the West Bank. Lapid is a supporter of the two-state solution and a critic of Jewish settlements, but his answer sounded like that of a politician trying to give Netanyahu no room to criticize him from the right.
“We need to be separated from the Palestinians, but for this to happen we need to be convinced that the future Palestinian state is peaceful, because we have enough failing terror states on our borders already,” he said. “By peaceful, I mean among other things a state that doesn’t call Jews pigs and monkeys in its children’s books. The burden of proof is on them.”
Lapid says that newly established diplomatic relations with several Arab countries—a by-product of the Abraham Accords, brokered mainly by the United Arab Emirates—increase the chance for a settlement with the Palestinians. “Tomorrow I’m having dinner with my friend Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed”—the Emirati foreign minister—“and he’s going to talk to me about the Palestinians, and I’m going to listen to him more, not less, because he’s my friend, someone I’ve learned to appreciate and do business with.” Lapid is hoping that the pace of “normalization” with Arab- and Muslim-majority states increases before the November 1 election, and though he wouldn’t answer specifics, it’s widely believed in the Israeli government that Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country, is considering establishing diplomatic ties.
For Lapid to stay prime minister, he must gain the support of at least 61 members of the Knesset. As of this moment, Netanyahu has a slight advantage, because he is open to forming alliances with ultra-Orthodox parties and with an extremist consortium led by the radical right-wing lawyer Itamar Ben-Gvir, who polls suggest could gain as many as 10 or 12 seats. One of Lapid’s main tasks before November 1 is to persuade the broad middle of the Israeli electorate to shun parties that play to existential fears. “Everybody is stuck in this left-versus-right traditional dynamic. But today, all over the world, it’s centrist versus extremist. Extremists are very good at marching and screaming, but they’re not very good at running countries and making sure they operate for the benefit of the people. So I am part of this wave, and I am optimistic because we are fighting back.”