As Israel returns to elections, Lapid shows his vision

JERUSALEM — Israel’s parliament voted to dissolve on Thursday, triggering the country’s fifth election in just over three years and propelling veteran politician Yair Lapid into the role of interim prime minister as he tries to persuade a deeply polarized nation to to adopt his centrist vision.

Polls indicate it will be difficult for Lapid to defeat his main rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a divisive figure who is at the heart of Israel’s protracted political crisis. The election is scheduled for November 1.

Lapid, a former author, newspaper columnist and television host, was the architect of the incumbent coalition government — an alliance of eight diverse parties spanning Israel’s political spectrum, bound in large part by their shared antipathy toward Netanyahu. The coalition ended the 12-year rule of Netanyahu, who was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

As with the previous four elections, the upcoming vote promises to be another referendum on Netanyahu, who is worshiped with cult reverence by his admirers and reviled with equal force by his opponents. The election focused on his fitness to lead at a time when he faces criminal charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. He denied any wrongdoing.

The current government collapsed just over a year after its formation due to infighting and a series of defections. As part of their power-sharing deal, current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will step down for Lapid, who officially takes office on Friday. Bennett will not appear in November.

In Israeli politics, no single party has ever won the parliamentary majority of 61 seats in parliament required to form a government. Instead, the party leader who can cobble together a majority coalition with other parties becomes prime minister.

This triggers a de facto battle between Netanyahu, whose Likud party is expected to be the largest party, and Lapid, whose party is expected to be second but may be better placed to form a coalition.

Both men are charismatic and gifted speakers with a rare talent for connecting with both large audiences and smaller groups. Yet they offer very different worldviews.

Lapid, a secular and cosmopolitan resident of an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood, burst onto the political scene in 2012 when he formed his “Yesh Atid” or “There is a future” party aimed at the moderate middle class. and in difficulty of the country. From those beginnings as an upstart, he morphed into a fiery opposition leader and finally into a shrewd operator who ousted Netanyahu.

He criticized the outsized influence of ultra-Orthodox parties and plans to woo Arab voters, if not for Yesh Atid, then for partners who might join a future coalition.

In fact, the incumbent coalition he helped build made history as the first to include an Arab party.

Lapid will also be the first Israeli prime minister since 2009 to support a two-state solution with the Palestinians, although he may not launch any major initiatives during his interim term.

During the election campaign, he will present himself as a unifier, while portraying Netanyahu as a divider. Netanyahu will likely describe his rival as inexperienced and dangerous.

Lapid did not speak publicly after Thursday’s vote, instead huddled for meetings and visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial. Lapid’s late father, former journalist and Cabinet minister Joseph Lapid, was a Holocaust survivor and a major influence on his son.

“Immediately after the vote, I went to Yad Vashem to promise my father that I will always keep Israel strong, able to defend itself and provide peace for its children,” he said.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is a staunch nationalist who has aligned himself with religious and ultra-nationalist parties that oppose a Palestinian state and support the West Bank settler movement, which is widely seen internationally as illegal and a impediment to peace.

It thrives on the division and conquest of its opponents and frequently uses inflammatory language against Israel’s Arab minority.

“They promised change, they talked about healing, they tried an experiment, and the experiment failed,” Netanyahu said in a speech to parliament ahead of Thursday’s vote as he railed against the incumbent government. “We are the only alternative: a strong, stable and responsible nationalist government.”

He kicked off his campaign immediately after the vote by stopping at a Jerusalem mall, where he promised cheering supporters he would tackle rising prices.

Facing a country that has known only Netanyahu for more than a decade, Lapid’s task in the coming months will be to convince the public that he is the prime minister’s material.

He used the last year as Israel’s foreign minister to build a list of international contacts, deepen ties with new Arab allies and lobby on the sidelines of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

And his new office, even in the caretaker role, will give him a powerful platform to achieve that goal. In two weeks, it will host US President Joe Biden, providing significant facetime as well as repeat photo opportunities. Lapid will hold press conferences and lead Cabinet meetings and security briefings to discuss the country’s most important issues, and is expected to have the opportunity to address the United Nations General Assembly in the fall. .

These moments could help him solidify the statesmanlike image he has sought to build. This week in the Knesset, the parliament, he appeared calm, collected and pensive. In private, he strikes a warmer note and is known for breaking the ice with self-deprecating humor.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an Israeli think tank, said Lapid’s bet could pay off.

Despite the deep divisions between Israel’s religious and secular Jews, its accommodating left wing and its nationalist right wing, and its Jewish and Arab communities, Plesner said there is a large swath of the population that holds centrist views on issues. issues such as seeking accommodation with the Palestinians. A swing of a handful of parliamentary seats could determine the outcome of the vote.

“The center exists, and Lapid is without a doubt the leader of this constituency,” he said.

Israeli media polls show Netanyahu and his allies set to win seats, although it is unclear whether they would have enough to form an outright majority.

If neither he nor anyone else succeeds, Israel could go to the polls again, a scenario that could leave Lapid in charge for months to come.

ABC News

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