Kahol Lavan co-leader Yair Lapid told an English-speaking audience Wednesday that he no longer recognizes the person Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become.
“If there’s one thing that worries me now, it is the fact that, after knowing Netanyahu for many years, this is not the person I or anybody knows. Something has happened in the last couple of years, and there has been a total degradation of his respect to what is holding us together,” he said, speaking to a full house of several hundred people squeezed into Tel Aviv’s ZOA House.
Lapid served in the 2013-2014 Netanyahu government with his newly formed Yesh Atid party, but is entering this election in a new alliance centrist alliance.
“I feel for this notion of talking about the great things we want to do for this country, but right now we have a crisis on our hands,” the 55-year-old former TV personality said. “When corruption is penetrating our lives, when the government is attacking our democracy, when people feel they are being neglected by politicians who only serve themselves and their own interests, then it’s a crisis,” he said.
Speaking in fluent English, Lapid addressed what he saw as the big threat to the cornerstones of Israel’s democracy — the Supreme Court, freedom of the press and the police — noting that “the first and far most important job of the prime minister is to protect this establishment.”
He cited Likud lawmakers who are actively seeking to advance legislation that would prevent criminal investigations against a sitting premier. “We cannot have a prime minister that is attacking [democracy] because he has some problems,” said Lapid, politely referring to the criminal charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust currently hanging over Netanyahu’s head.
Yair Lapid talking at ZOA House in Tel Aviv, March 6, 2019.Sophia Jessen
The atmosphere during the event suggested excitement at the possibility of ending Netanyahu’s 10-year term in office, though one questioner drew applause toward the end when he said Lapid had spent 40 minutes criticizing Netanyahu and wanted to hear what his own party’s policies were.
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Lapid’s Kahol Lavan — a pact with Benny Gantz’s new Hosen L’Yisrael and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem — is riding high in the polls. The most recent projections give Kahol Lavan 36-37 seats in the next Knesset, compared to 29-30 for Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party. If the centrists can gather at least 61 lawmakers to form a governing coalition, this could see Lapid becoming Israel’s prime minister in 2021 (as part of the electoral pact, Gantz would be premier for the first two and a half years, followed by the Yesh Atid leader).
People in the audience twice asked Lapid to clarify his party’s policies on the Israel-Palestinian issue, to which he explained that “we need to separate from the Palestinians, and we need to do it on four terms that to me are essential.”
These included that “Israeli security should stay in Israeli hands,” enabling the army to enter Palestinian territory if they are aware of terrorists planning an attack on Israelis. The second related to the security borders and that Jordan Valley remain in Israeli hands, while the third dealt with the right of return. “There is no such thing as the right of return,” said Lapid, referring to the Palestinian demand to return to pre-1948 lands. The final demand is that Jerusalem remain undivided, “because countries do not divide their own capitals.”
Lapid acknowledged the difficulties these terms could be to establish a peace deal with the Palestinians, but remained optimistic: “It will be a very tough agreement that we are going to reach, and then your [younger] generation will have to take this into something more. But we need to start it,” Lapid said, adding that there needed to be a regional conference with the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians on the issue.
Lapid also accused the government of having “spent more than 10 billion shekels [$2.76 billion] on all sorts of political agreements,” citing the aircraft the Netanyahus use, which he said had cost the state 580 million shekels. As a previous finance minister, Lapid explained, he had the knowledge and ability to free those 10 billion shekels to help lower the cost of living for Israelis.
“We are going to take 10 billion shekels from the politicians and give it back to the people,” he said, to applause.
Some attendees were looking for clarification on Kahol Lavan’s actual policies if it forms the next government. Patricia O’Neill, who came to Israel in 2017 and will be participating her first election here, told Haaretz before the event: “I haven’t been here to witness all the issues of Netanyahu and his leadership, so for me it’s not just about replacing him. I have no idea of the positive aspects of Kahol Lavan’s policies or what issues they stand for.”
One issue definitely concerning the audience was the lack of females on the ticket: Kahol Lavan has only two women, Miki Haimovich and Orna Barbivai, in its top 10 candidates.
Lapid responded that Kahol Lavan is “determined to fix this through the kind of responsibilities we are going to give the unbelievable women in our list if we establish ourselves as the next government.” He would not go into further details when asked to specify, though.
Yonatan Wegier, who lives in Tel Aviv and recently finished his military service, told Haaretz that for him, the first and most important thing is to replace Netanyahu. “The time has come to change the government of Bibi, and it seems that Gantz and Lapid are the only ones capable of that.”
Another young Israeli who recently finished his military service, Avi (who asked that his full name not be used), said that the issue of representation will be a major consideration when he decides whom to vote for on Election Day. “It’s important enough that it can be a deciding factor, because the Knesset should represent the people properly,” he said.
He added that his army service had changed his views on politics and, in particular, racial disparity. “It became more important to vote on these matters, and it’s going to be interesting to see whether they are willing to stand up against racial discrimination.”
Wednesday’s event was organized by the Tel Aviv International Salon, in partnership with the Times of Israel and the Israel office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.