Telem-Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid is probably the strongest adversary that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could face in the next elections.
By Ben Caspit
Who will be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultimate challenger in the next elections? This is not a theoretical question. Israelis could find themselves at the ballot boxes later this year, for the fourth time in 18 months. Netanyahu has been plunging in the polls, with his Likud party losing more than 10 Knesset seats in recent weeks. The latest results indicate that the right-wing bloc of parties and the center-left bloc are back to the tie of the past three elections. Nonetheless, so far, no arrowhead, no anti-Netanyahu alternative has emerged to challenge him.
Over the past year and a half, it was Defense Minister and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz who positioned himself as Netanyahu’s main adversary. But these shoes filled by Gantz, the somewhat limping Netanyahu challenger who led his party through three inconclusive elections, are now empty. With the party splitting over the unity deal with Netanyahu and with the disappointment of followers, his party has few Knesset seats left — both in reality and in the polls.
Other candidates for the challenger’s job, in descending order of their prospects, are centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, former military chief Gadi Eizenkot, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman. Gantz is last. Popular Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is a new and surprising addition to the list, albeit still not officially so. He is said to be considering a national political run at the head of a new party.
The coveted goal of whoever takes on the perennial mission of beating Netanyahu is to mobilize the mass protest movement sweeping Israel’s streets, towns and bridges in recent weeks. This is no mean feat. The growing wave of protests against the prime minister and his policies consists of many disparate, uncoordinated elements. It lacks a centralized leadership of the type that led the summer 2011 socio-economic protest against the Netanyahu government. Among the demonstrators this summer are Israelis protesting the pandemic-induced economic crisis, others demanding Netanyahu’s resignation over his corruption indictment, still others angry at the handling of the health crisis and even fragments of the political left caught up in the inertia of opposition to Netanyahu’s annexation plans and other issues.
Unlike 2011, when politicians distanced themselves to avoid tainting the protest with party affiliations, this time leader of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid has made a conscious decision to take a stand. He and his fellow party lawmakers have been storming the bridges and intersections every Saturday evening, alongside the so-called black flag protesters demanding Netanyahu’s ouster. Lapid’s No. 2 — former army Chief and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon — has also announced he would join the protesters massing outside the prime minister’s official Jerusalem residence in order to protect them from harassment by the thugs of the radical right, the Beitar soccer club fans known as “La Familia.” Lapid is gambling on the protest big-time.
His plan is simple. He is hoping Netanyahu continues to slide in the polls, slipping below Likud’s 31-32 seats in the polls to 20-something seats, while Yesh Atid edges up from the 17-19 seats at which it is currently polling and crosses the 20 prefix. Lapid hopes that if both parties land in the 20-seat range, a psychological barrier will be breached. He has embarked on an intense campaign to woo Eizenkot, a game-changing move that he hopes will turn him into the ultimate Netanyahu match-up with significant odds in his favor. His plan has just one flaw: Lt. Gen. (Res.) Eizenkot, who changed into civvies in January 2019, is still far from a decision, and if he does try his hand at politics, there is no guarantee he will go with Lapid.
The unassuming former chief-of-staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is much in demand. Everyone wants to court him, convince him. His IDF predecessors Gantz and Ashkenazi would like to see him climb on board their Blue and White wagon, but that is unlikely given its grim poll results. Should its fortunes shift — initial signs of change have emerged in recent days — and if they offer Eizenkot a top slot, he may agree. Eizenkot and Ashkenazi are “brothers in arms,” both Golani Brigade veterans and close friends. Together with Gantz, this trio could try to restore the image of the military institution that was once synonymous with political consensus but has been tarnished largely by the political adventurism of Blue and White.
Eizenkot has many other takers. One of them is the chair of the secular right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party, the man who has never feared Netanyahu and has held the balance of power in the past three elections, Avigdor Liberman. Liberman would make Eizenkot his second-in-command along with a promise of succession on the day he decides to throw in his political towel. As defense minister, Liberman did not get along with the IDF chief. The two were often at odds, sometimes seriously, as was the case with the attitude toward Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot a dying, unarmed Palestinian assailant in Hebron in 2016. Nonetheless, they washed their dirty laundry in-house and ended their terms with a sense of mutual admiration and respect.
Two additional candidates are waiting in the wings. One is Yamina’s Bennet, the official energizer battery of Israeli politics, the man who reinvented himself in brilliant fashion after the 2019 elections that exiled his right-wing party from the Knesset. Bennett currently enjoys growing popularity, especially due to his performance in the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic when he served briefly as minister of defense. Retrospectively, quite a few people consider him as the only top figure to present a coherent plan to fight the pandemic, displaying uncompromising determination. Bennet has been polling recently at the incredible level of 12-15 seats — compared to his current five — and is seeking a formula that would allow him to vault to new highs.
Last on the list is the perennial, undecided candidate, veteran Tel Aviv Mayor Huldai of the Labor party, may it rest in peace. Huldai is particularly popular among what is left of the political left and the bubble known as the "State of Tel Aviv." However, he is hampered by his limited attraction for other voters. Huldai is yet to decide, but he is an experienced politician and he identifies the leadership vacuum at the center of the political map. This could be the last opportunity for the man who recently marked his 70th birthday.
Will Huldai establish a political party? Will he join an existing candidate (Lapid, Liberman, Gantz-Ashkenazi)? This will all become clear soon, right after Netanyahu himself makes the truly important decision of whether he will gamble on elections this year, despite his own difficult circumstances and those of the state, or be the first to blink in the current impasse with Gantz over the budget approval. If Netanyahu agrees to a two-year budget as per the coalition agreement with his rival-partner Gantz, the election option will be set aside. If he refuses, November elections could well be in the cards.