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Tuesday July 5th, 2022 10:56AM

Lapid, set to be Israel's next premier, faces critical test

By The Associated Press
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JERUSALEM (AP) — In a 10-year political career, Israel's Yair Lapid has transformed himself from an upstart political novice to a feisty opposition leader to the savvy operator who toppled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Next week, he is expected to assume his biggest role yet — as the new prime minister.

Following the government’s decision to dissolve parliament, Lapid, now foreign minister, is set to take office as caretaker prime minister until elections in the fall. It will be a critical test for Lapid, 58, who will try to convince Israelis he is worthy of the top office as he takes on a resurgent Netanyahu.

“A year ago, we started the process of rebuilding, and now: we’re carrying it on, and carrying it on together,” Lapid declared late Monday as he stood alongside his main coalition partner, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Officially, the two men were announcing the end of their year-old government — an alliance of eight diverse parties that was severely weakened by months of infighting and rebellion. But in many ways, Lapid sounded like he was beginning his next campaign.

“Even if we are going to elections in a few months, the challenges we face will not wait,” he said, pointing to Israel’s high cost of living and security challenges in Gaza, Lebanon and Iran.

In a swipe at Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, he vowed to “stand against the forces threatening to turn Israel into a nondemocratic country.” Netanyahu, believing he is the victim of a political witch hunt, has made clear he intends to take on the country’s legal and law-enforcement establishment if he returns to power.

A former author, columnist, news anchor, bank pitchman and amateur boxer, Lapid left a successful career as a media personality to enter politics in 2012 as head of a new centrist party popular with middle-class Israelis.

He promised economic relief, an end to controversial draft exemptions for seminary students and a more moderate approach to the Palestinians.

Unlike the right-wing parties that dominate Israel’s political system, Lapid favors peace talks leading to an eventual two-state solution with the Palestinians, although it’s unclear if he will ever have the kind of mandate needed to engage in such a process.

In 2013, he led his new Yesh Atid party to a surprisingly strong showing in parliamentary elections. Yesh Atid finished as the second-largest party, with 19 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Lapid became finance minister, a difficult and often thankless task. While marking some successes, his key promises of lowering the cost of living and bringing down housing prices failed to materialize. Netanyahu eventually fired him for insubordination.

Yesh Atid dropped to 11 seats in the 2015 elections. Lapid found himself in the opposition and appeared to be on the way to becoming the latest in a long line of centrist politicians to flame out after early success.

But Lapid managed to reinvent himself. He formed an alliance with former military chief Benny Gantz that came close to toppling Likud in three consecutive elections.

Those elections, focused on Netanyahu’s divisive personality and fitness to rule, all ended inconclusively. Moving to end the deadlock, Gantz briefly joined forces with Netanyahu in 2020 — leaving Lapid as opposition leader and a vocal government critic.

When the country went back to the polls in early 2021, Yesh Atid once again surged and emerged as the second-largest party in parliament. In a stroke of creative diplomacy and political savvy, Lapid cobbled together a new coalition that pushed Netanyahu into the opposition for the first time in 12 years.

Although Lapid was the mastermind of the alliance, he cemented the deal by agreeing to rotate the job of prime minister with Bennett — a move that was seen by many as selfless and statesmanlike. Lapid took on the post of foreign minister.

The coalition members spanned the Israeli political spectrum, with little binding them together beyond opposition to Netanyahu. The government made history by being the first to include an Arab party.

The coalition got off to a strong start — passing the first national budget in several years, navigating a pair of coronavirus waves and improving relations with the U.S. and Arab allies.

Ultimately, ideological differences caused it to unravel. Parliament is expected to dissolve itself in a series of votes over the coming days. Once that happens, Lapid takes over as caretaker prime minister until elections in October or November.

The coming months present great risk — and great opportunity. Once again, Netanyahu’s Likud party appears to be the front-runner. And once again, Netanyahu’s leadership style and legal woes are likely to be high on voters’ minds.

While Lapid is sure to face relentless attacks from Netanyahu, who has tried to portray him as a lightweight who betrayed Israel's security by allying with an Arab faction, he will do so from the perch of the prime minister’s office.

After serving as foreign minister for the past year, he will have even more opportunities to strengthen his international standing. He is set to host President Joe Biden on a visit next month and will have the opportunity to speak at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Lapid spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday to prepare for Biden's visit, the Foreign Ministry said.

“The visit will have significant implications for the region and the fight against Iran, as well as immense potential to significantly improve regional stability and security,” it said.

As caretaker prime minister, he is unlikely to launch any major military operations or bold peace initiatives with the Palestinians. If Lapid can keep things quiet and avoid controversy, he could be well-positioned for the next election.

“Lapid has to work now at looking prime ministerial,” wrote Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist at the Haaretz daily. “His new post, from next week on, as interim prime minister is his greatest asset going into the election.”

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