Israel Pulse

Israeli centrist leader challenges Netanyahu on his own turf

Article Summary
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s combined media attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is intended to present him as a major player in the diplomatic and security arena.

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid decided April 30 to withdraw the "no confidence" motion he had filed against the government, even though it was intended to be his opposition opening salvo in the Knesset’s summer session. He recognized that the Knesset was overwhelmed by a sense of emergency, stemming from the attack on Iranian facilities in Syria the night before. With the Cabinet holding an urgent meeting and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu absent from the opening session, the predominant feeling in the Knesset was that Israel was on the brink of war.

So Lapid — together with the Zionist Camp — acted in a stately manner and withdrew their "no confidence" motions. Then, just a few hours later, they watched Netanyahu seize the agenda in Israel and internationally. Netanyahu gave what can best be described as a prime-time TV performance to present Iran’s nuclear archive to the world, after it had been obtained by the Mossad in a James Bond-like operation.

The presentation concluded one of the most difficult days the opposition has faced in a very long time. Opposition leaders planning to wage a battle against the prime minister, who is entangled in all sorts of criminal investigations, but instead found themselves praising what can only be described as a remarkable intelligence coup.

By the next day, however, it looked as if Lapid had already recovered. This started with his party’s latest acquisition, Ram Ben-Barak, former deputy head of the Mossad, giving interviews accusing Netanyahu of acting irresponsibly. It was a very sophisticated move on Lapid’s part. While he is no authority on security matters, Ben-Barak was a candidate to head the Mossad. In other words, he is drawn from the very flesh and blood of that fabled intelligence agency. And yet, Ben-Barak was expressing his dismay at what the prime minister just did. He told the press that he was convinced that most of the Mossad opposed disclosing the operation to the public and then went on to wonder: “Why would we give Iran the slightest hint to help them investigate how the documents were stolen, and then start arresting people?”

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Ben-Barak was the canary who announced Lapid’s integrated attack on Netanyahu across a number of platforms, including a speech to the Knesset plenum. He arrived prepared with a list of main messages, which he later repeated in every interview. It was all part of an effort to position himself as a major player in the diplomatic and security arena, facing off against "Mr. Security" himself.

Lapid made it understood that he has internal information claiming that the intelligence community has been in a state of shock ever since the evening of April 30. He followed this by expressing his concerns for Israel’s safety and security after Netanyahu’s reckless act. Lapid was quite blunt about it in an interview with Army Radio on May 3. “Never in the history of Israel,” he began, “and to the best of my knowledge, anywhere else in the world, has there been a situation in which intelligence reports of this kind have been made public in this manner. … Make no mistake about it. For the past 48 hours, the intelligence community has been in a state of utter shock.” When interviewers Yaron Dekel and Amit Segal asked whom he spoke with apart from Ben-Barak, Lapid managed to avoid giving them a clear-cut answer.

Throughout his interviews, Lapid tried to get the message across that Netanyahu made a serious error of judgment, and that he is worried about the prime minister’s behavior. Lapid also made it clear that he would have acted differently by presenting the intelligence materials discreetly to European leaders in an effort to win their support for a joint response with US President Donald Trump. By taking this approach, Lapid was able to make himself relevant, at least to the media. It was a well-planned response to Netanyahu, after he reshuffled the deck and left the opposition paralyzed. After all, how could they attack such a successful operation on behalf of Israel’s security?

Time will tell if Lapid was successful, but what he was actually trying to do was separate Netanyahu from the Mossad’s remarkable achievement. Furthermore, the subtext was that Netanyahu is unfit to make security decisions because his discretion has been compromised. In the ensuing circumstances in which Netanyahu is not only ignoring police investigations into his affairs while positioning himself in the center of international affairs, this was a very appropriate way for the chairman of Yesh Atid to regain his stature.

As would be expected, the Likud tried to downplay Lapid’s response by attacking his soft underbelly, pointing out that Lapid didn’t serve in the military in any meaningful capacity. Likud leaders wanted to remind everyone that Lapid's stint in the army consisted of him being a journalist for the Israel Defense Forces’ Bamahane magazine. In its response May 2, the Likud also claimed that “in contrast to his [Lapid’s] delusional comments, the decision to release Iran’s nuclear archive was made in concert with all of the relevant defense and security organizations.”

Despite the barrage of insults, Lapid refused to fold. He continued to relay the same messages in his ensuing interviews while adding that Netanyahu himself appointed him to be a member of the Security Cabinet in the previous government.

There is no doubt that facing off against Netanyahu in the diplomatic and security arena can be a challenge, particularly when Netanyahu is at one of the high points of his career. Netanyahu is engaged in remarkable coordination with the US administration; he is leading an aggressive policy against Iran in Syria; and he will soon be inaugurating the new US Embassy in Jerusalem (perhaps with Trump in attendance), the feasibility of which was once questioned by everybody. All of these accomplishments have succeeded in removing the criminal investigations from the agenda.

Until recently, Lapid was thought to pose a real threat to Netanyahu. He has, however, gotten weaker over the past few weeks. A poll conducted by the News Company April 23, gave Lapid just 20 Knesset seats, his lowest number in the past year, if an election were held today. Meanwhile, Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis, the rising star in the political arena, is eating away at Lapid’s electoral base, while the same poll showed that even Avi Gabbay of the Zionist Camp was showing signs of recovery, apparently at Lapid’s expense.

In his interviews this week, Lapid claimed that his attack on Netanyahu had nothing to do with his declining poll numbers, and that the only thing that matters to him is Israel’s security. On the other hand, even if Lapid is genuinely shocked by what the prime minister did, it is still impossible to ignore his intriguing political countermove.

Politically, Lapid has announced that he refuses to raise a white flag and surrender to Netanyahu’s domination of the country’s security agenda. In doing so, he was able to disturb Netanyahu’s euphoria if only in some small way. He challenged the legitimacy of the prime minister’s actions, hoping that his criticism would catch on among the public. Even if he fails at this, Lapid will still try to convince the public that while he may lack any real experience in matters of security, he is not afraid to confront Netanyahu on those very issues, and that he knows what needs to be done.

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Found in: nuclear deal, israeli elections, mossad, benjamin netanyahu, iranian-israeli conflict, idf, yair lapid, yesh atid

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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