The biggest winner of Israel’s January Knesset elections was Yair Lapid, the former TV personality who led his Yesh Atid Party to a tremendous showing, gaining 19 Knesset seats in its first try for office. In the aftermath of that victory and prior to his joining Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, I speculated as to whether Lapid could survive success since every previous such newcomer to Israeli electoral politics who had such a good showing was soon brought to grief. The definitive answer to that question will have to wait until at least after the next Israeli election. But four months later the tentative response would have to be that he appears on track to be felled by the same sin that every other “centrist” new voice has committed: accepting the responsibility of government.
Lapid’s personal popularity has plummeted as a result of him getting the short straw when Netanyahu handed out Cabinet posts. As finance minister, Lapid, whose party was catapulted to a second place finish by capitalizing on middle class discontent, has had the unfortunate responsibility of paying the bills in a country where most people and their government live on credit. There was no rational alternative to the austerity budget that he presented to the Knesset, but the tax increases and budget cuts in it were not exactly what his voters had in mind when they put him in office. Polls show half of those who backed Yesh Atid won’t do so again and that has left Lapid, who has not given interviews in recent months, with the need to reboot his personality cult. As part of this effort, he gave an interview to the New York Times to talk about his political education in terms that seem painfully familiar for those who remember how other centrist leaders were schooled by reality once they took office.
But what’s fascinating about the interview isn’t his confession that he “used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts.” Nor is it his bold prediction that all will come right in the end for him. It’s that despite the best efforts of the Times to entice him to win some popularity abroad by separating himself from Netanyahu on the peace process, Lapid’s positions remain virtually identical to those of the prime minster. For all of his current political problems, Lapid understands there’s no future in Israel for those who curry favor with the country’s foreign critics.
Many on Israel’s right are viewing the arrival of President Obama in their country with suspicion. They look at his record of antagonism toward the Netanyahu government and his past attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians and think no good can possibly come from an event that will give someone they view as inherently hostile to the Jewish state a bully pulpit from which to put forward his ideas. They may be right about Obama’s long-term intentions toward Israel. But for a better idea of who are the real losers as the president puts the country in the spotlight, it might be better to look at what pundits on the left are saying about it. As unhappy as some right-wingers might be about the arrival of what has undoubtedly been the least sympathetic toward Israel of any president in the last generation, it is the left that is really unhappy.
Look at just about any one of the many opinion columnists writing in the left-wing Haaretz or read the lament of veteran journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect and you quickly realize that the left understands that the presidential agenda signals the nadir of their influence in Israeli politics and policymaking. A couple of years ago they would have cheered an Obama visit, certain that the president would use the occasion to bash the Netanyahu government and strong-arm it into far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Now they read of his decision to put the peace process on the back burner and concentrate instead on making sure the two countries are on the same page on Iran, and tell him to go home. The uncontroversial nature of the Obama visit and the lack of expectations that it will do a thing to advance the moribund peace process means the decades-old hope of the Israeli left (cheered on by Jewish liberals in the United States like the J Street lobby) that America will “save Israel from itself” is officially dead.
American critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have spent the time since his election in early 2009 longing for someone who could knock the Likud leader off his perch. But luckily for Netanyahu, his most likely rivals, such as former Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, have crashed and burned in the intervening years. Ironically, the latest figure to raise the hopes of American Bibi-bashers is someone who actually crashed and burned before Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister began. His predecessor Ehud Olmert has been the subject of a mini-boomlet among some Americans desperate for a new challenger to the incumbent, but you have to take a pretty cynical view of Israeli society to believe that the suspended sentence and fine he was given today by a judge for his conviction for breach of public trust will act as a springboard for a comeback.
Though left-wing American groups like J Street have treated him like a hero, his checkered ethical record as well as the fact that he is widely considered his country’s least successful leader in history are the sort of handicaps that ought to daunt even the boldest of politicians. Though Netanyahu is going through a rough patch right now after a few years of being unchallenged, if the best his liberal American detractors can come up with is someone like Olmert, then he has little to worry about at the next election.
In recent decades it became a common trope to bemoan Israel’s inability to inspire politically. As opposed to the state’s early decades of scrappy existence against long odds, the images of Israeli tanks staring down Arab rock-throwers supposedly denuded Israel’s capacity to arouse anything much other than discomfort.
Yesterday’s late night political drama at the Knesset is a shining counterpoint. It demonstrates the continued ability of Israel’s politicians not to be victims of their circumstances but to actively shape them, something we in the United States (and the entire Western world for that matter) should take heed of.
For the past three years, figures in America’s foreign policy establishment as well as media kibbitzers who knew little about Israel had a constant refrain: Tzipi Livni, the glamorous head of the Kadmia Party, should replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s election in February 2009, the Obama administration openly plotted to topple the new leader and replace him with Livni, whom they viewed as more pliable on the Palestinian issue. Once that ploy failed as President Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu only strengthened him at home, Netanyahu’s American critics could only sit back and wait patiently until Livni defeated him on her own. But the wait is going to be a lot longer than many in Washington thought.
Last night, Livni lost her perch as opposition leader as the members of her rapidly shrinking party rejected her in favor of former General Shaul Mofaz in a primary to determine who will top the party’s list in the next election that is currently scheduled for October 2013. That Livni, who was feted abroad and was prominently placed on lists of the world’s most important women, was defeated at all will come as a shock to her foreign admirers. But this was no ordinary defeat. The lady who only a couple of weeks ago was lauded as Israel’s “voice of reason” in a fawning piece by John Avlon in the Daily Beast, was slaughtered by Mofaz, 62-38 percent. The question now is whether Americans who were under the delusion that Livni represented a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s popular government will get the message.