Yair Lapid, leader of the newly formed Yesh Atid, continues to stump for votes, but he’s lost control over where and how he does so. At first hailed as a centrist who would shift the discourse away from the conflict with the Palestinians and Iran and toward domestic issues, he’s been forced instead to the international arena, where he’s less likely to win.
Lapid has tried to narrow down his focus to issues related to inequality in Israeli society, particularly between an oligarchic class and others, and between the haredim and the rest. But as Dahlia Scheindlin put it, “It’s been hard to discern just what Lapid really stands for, other than his declaration that he represents a middle class.”
Indeed, his focus on that catch-all group, with only vague Romney-like proclamations about the need to improve conditions, means he’s essentially left most of the field of social-economic issues to Shelly Yachimovich and Labor, who have worked quickly to seize and control that ground.
This means Lapid cannot hold the left on these issues, which Israelis have been saying are very important to them. He will certainly get some votes from that quarter—he is a well-known figure who’s mostly said things that resonate with traditional leftwing voters. But he’s sharing that end of the spectrum with Labor and Meretz, both of whom are expected to win more seats than they currently have.
To garner more support, then, he’s moved to foreign policy. But he can’t be more hawkish than Likud and the other rightwing parties, though to make sure rightist voters don’t misunderstand him he’s snorted that he’s no “lefty.” Nor can he be as publicly dovish as Labor and Meretz have traditionally been: because Yachimovich has hardly mentioned the settlements or the Palestinians, he’d be focusing everyone’s attention on his own dovishness and then lose those centrists leaning right.
That means he needs to work the foreign policy center, and here he’s been doing an admirable job of balancing the nationalist vote and the dovish vote. His speech yesterday in the settlement of Ariel nicely captures his effort. (Aluf Benn goes further, writing that Lapid displayed “political courage” in his speech.)
He proclaimed the importance of and his intention to hold on to the main settlement blocs—that he gave his speech at Ariel University Center was a brilliant physical demonstration of this—and that Jerusalem wouldn’t be divided. He insisted there will be no Palestinian right of return, but that there is a partner for peace among the Palestinians. He was clear that there must be two states, and that he won’t sit in a government that won’t negotiate.
In the ultimate balancing act, he asserted that “The far left and the far right are advancing unchecked…the dangerous and distorted idea of a binational state,” arguing that only a genuine peace agreement would keep Israel Jewish.
On Iran, he said that Netanyahu “took a wrong turn” in the debate over the Iranian nuclear program. This implies criticism of Bibi’s belligerent and aggressive insistence on the issue, but Lapid was also clear that the military option couldn’t be taken off the table as a “last resort.”
It remains to be seen if Lapid can hold to the balancing act he’s developed. But the fact that he’s being forced onto issues rather than controlling his own messaging suggests he’s going to have considerable difficulty doing so. This, even as his rivals consolidate and assert themselves. We certainly shouldn’t count Lapid and Yesh Atid out, but if they don’t get a substantial amount of seats in January, enough to matter either in coalition bargaining or as a real opposition, like any “third party” in Israeli history, the chances of making it to the next election diminish considerably.