The Jerusalem Post
How the foreign minister changed the world
Yair Lapid’s strategy for building the government is seen as a new global model
Before Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s first day at work, he was already being praised around the world for his accomplishments.
The praise did not come for anything he did at the ministry, or for anything the international community hopes he will do in the future.
Rather, it was Lapid’s political prowess in masterminding the new government’s formation, bringing diverse parties together and ousting former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that impressed movers and shakers around the world and across the political spectrum.
“One lesson from Israel: to defeat an autocrat who attacks democratic norms and institutions, oppositions need to unify under a big tent,” American political commentator Ben Rhodes wrote on Twitter. “In Israel’s case, that even led Lapid to compromise on who would start as prime minister, but he understood the imperative of getting Bibi out first.”
A former deputy national security adviser under former US president Barack Obama, Rhodes wrote that in Hungary, opposition parties have agreed to put aside differences and unify in next year’s election to oust Netanyahu’s friend and fellow nationalist leader Viktor Orban.
“This is an increasingly common and necessary strategy around the world,” Rhodes wrote.
Rhodes was attacked for calling Netanyahu an autocrat, following a democratic process that resulted in his removal as prime minister. But Netanyahu himself voiced his agreement with the notion that his departure from office would have a global impact, when he retweeted a statement by rebel Yamina MK Amichai Chikli to that effect.
“The downfall of Netanyahu will harm the Republican Party in the United States and every right-wing party in the world,” Chikli said in a since deleted statement that Netanyahu raised eyebrows by retweeting.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, a former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief, also wrote about the international influence of Lapid’s successful strategy of bringing together a diverse coalition to replace Netanyahu.
“It holds lessons for other Western democracies gripped by partisanship and paralysis,” Stephens wrote. “Nearly all members of the new coalition had to sacrifice a point of political or moral principle, break ranks with some of their own constituents and get branded as traitors to their respective movements in order to make this coalition possible. They are ideological turncoats, at least to those who think of ideological purity as a virtue. Being willing to abandon a ferocious conviction for the sake of a pragmatic compromise used to be considered a virtue in democracy.”
THERE WERE those who thought Lapid’s strategy was finalized during a controversial January 25 visit to Washington, from which he returned just six hours before foreign flights were banned from landing in Israel, in an attempt to stop passengers infected with COVID19 from entering Israel. Lapid held intense strategic meetings on that visit with his Washington-based longtime strategist, Mark Mellman.
Likud MK Miki Zohar posted a picture of Lapid on the plane, and a Likud spokesman criticized him for “flying to the US to meet his pollster during a crisis.”
In an interview with the Post, Mellman downplayed that visit. He noted that Lapid’s strategy over the past two years has been consistent, but said that only now was he able to carry it out.
When Blue and White was formed, Lapid agreed to play second fiddle to Benny Gantz, who later chose to abandon him for a government with Netanyahu, instead of relying on the votes of an Arab faction, as the new government does. Lapid enabled Yamina leader Naftali Bennett to go first in a rotation as prime minister, despite controlling 11 fewer seats, in order to ensure the government’s formation.
“We’ve had conversations about this for years,” Mellman said. “This strategy was decided long ago and employed with Gantz. It’s the same pattern. Lapid sacrificed his own interests for the greater good. I meet with a lot of politicians around the world. Not too many are willing to do that.”
Mellman returned to Washington Tuesday night, after coming to Israel to watch the vote to replace Netanyahu’s government and the swearing-in of Lapid at the Knesset.
“It was great to be present and witness history,” he said. “My role has been greatly exaggerated. Lapid is assiduously focused on the greater good for Israel. That is why he sacrificed himself. He has great political skills that made this miracle happen.”
Mellman questioned whether he had helped create an international precedent. Political systems are different around the world, he said, which limits how exportable they are.
“It takes a proportional representation system, like Israel has, and it takes a person with the power to bring them [multiple parties] together and the grace to take the second chair,” he said.
Mellman noted that Lapid also chose to forgo votes for his own party, in order to help parties in his political bloc that were in danger of not crossing the 3.25% electoral threshold, including Labor, Meretz and Blue and White.
“In most elections, politicians try to get as many votes as possible for their party, but here we needed to help parties pass the threshold,” he said. “We could have gotten more votes for Yesh Atid, but he was adamant to maximize votes for the bloc.”
Asked to grade the strategy of Yamina that made Bennett prime minister with only six seats, Mellman said “Bennett played the hand he was dealt extremely well.”
The other hat Mellman wears is that of president of Democratic Majority for Israel, an advocacy group that works to maintain and strengthen support for Israel among Democratic Party leaders, including presidential and congressional candidates as well as with the grassroots of progressive movements.
Now that Lapid is foreign minister, he will be working on the same goal as Mellman’s group.
“As someone who is really concerned about the alienation of Democrats, I am delighted that the foreign minister is committed to that,” Mellman said.
He said American Democrats and leaders around the world were relieved to see Netanyahu no longer in power. He cited massive banners of Netanyahu
with then-US president Donald Trump on the Ayalon Highway that angered Democrats in the United States as an example of Netanyahu taking a step that might have helped him politically but damaged Israel.
“Bibi alienated a lot of Democrats and
leaders around the world,” he said. “They wanted change in Israel. There is a strong sense among them that the former prime minister aligned himself with the Republican Party in an inappropriate way.”
Netanyahu has countered that notion this week by retweeting praise he has received from current and former leaders around the world, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazilian President Jair Messias Bolsonaro.
THE INTERNATIONAL figures who praised Lapid will now be looking to see what results he delivers as foreign minister and what accomplishments the new government could deliver despite the challenges of its diversity.
The satire show Eretz Nehederet portrayed the eight party leaders in the new government patting themselves on the back for ousting Netanyahu and then having nothing else in common to talk about.
“We promised ‘change,’ and we delivered by getting rid of Bibi,” Lapid’s character said. “We didn’t promise ‘changes’ in plural.”
The rotation as prime minister is set for August 27, 2023. Only if that happens will Lapid earn more praise for his political strategy.
As the spoof on the show underscored, the true test of Lapid’s political acumen is still yet to come.