Five weeks ago, when Israel’s interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid entered office, his critics voiced concern over his lack of experience in crisis management.
Void of the usual extensive military experience that Israeli leaders often have, Lapid’s military service was spent far from the battlefield as a correspondent for the army newspaper. He then spent years as a journalist, before entering the political arena in 2012.
Lapid made it clear he was aiming for the premiership, his opponents often mocking his short-lived, noncombatant military career. During his political career, he has held several ministerial portfolios, all non-security related.
A decade later, with photos of him commanding over a military operation in the Gaza Strip as head of Israel’s government, Lapid has been presented with an opportunity to make political gains from his new position.
As Israel finds itself in a lengthy political crisis that has been going on since 2019 and is headed for its fifth national election in just over three and a half years, Lapid has positioned himself as the main alternative to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Lapid and Netanyahu will face each other at the polls on November 1.
As the country’s longest serving premier, Israelis are used to seeing Netanyahu at the helm. Twice wounded in battle, Netanyahu served five years in the General Staff Reconnaissance (Sayeret Matkal) special forces unit, and years later, as prime minister, he oversaw countless military operations.
Many Israelis see extensive military experience as a must-have for a leader. However, not all Israeli prime ministers have been decorated soldiers or have had extensive military experience.
Polls conducted during the latest years of political crisis have asked Israelis whom they see as fit for leadership. Lapid has never passed Netanyahu. In recent weeks, before the current escalation, Netanyahu had a solid approval rate of nearly 50% for his fitness to lead, with Lapid trailing at 30%. Polls conducted after the latest operation in Gaza have yet to be published and may show a changing picture.
“We will not see a major change,” said Eran Vigoda-Gadot, a professor of public administration at the University of Haifa. “The blocs in Israel will not change overnight, but rather we need to see a generational transition in order to see a different distribution of votes.”
Prof. Udi Lebel, head of the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University and an expert in political psychology and communication, said: “The Israeli voter uses his vote as a confirmation of identity, rather than policy. People identify themselves as part of political communities. Elections are a ceremony which validates these identities.”
The political constellation in the last few years has prevented Netanyahu from forming a government. While a fifth election may not change that, many Israelis are still convinced he is the only figure in the political arena with the proper skill set to lead.
Lapid was eager to enter office, even temporarily, in order to change that.
Photos of him surrounded by military officers, maps and satellite imagery may alter the public’s perception of him.
“Lapid succeeded in positioning himself, mostly within the Center-Left bloc, as a prime minister, capable of managing such an event regardless of his previous inexperience,” said Lebel. Even though Lapid was sworn in just weeks ago, it seems his de facto rite of passage occurred when he ordered a military operation from the defense headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Lapid also used the opportunity to position himself as a statesman, elevating himself from muddy politics by – as required by law – briefing Netanyahu as head of the opposition on developments in Gaza.
“Lapid robbed Netanyahu of the chance to criticize him by being proactive and initiating an operation in Gaza,” Lebel told The Media Line. “Netanyahu, who oversaw many operations in Gaza, carried out the same type of operations and sometimes less successfully.”
The former prime minister and his Likud party were forced to voice support for the operation. Anything short of that would have drawn criticism from the Israeli public, which tends to rally behind its military in times of crisis, regardless of political considerations.
With the Israeli media portraying the military operation against Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a success, Lapid is in a prime position to take the credit. Concluding the operation in three days, with no fatalities on the Israeli side, Lapid passed his first major test. He took a major risk in initiating the aerial offensive.
Still, Israel has been in political stalemate for several years now and previous upticks in tensions did not translate into major changes.
“The impact will be very limited,” said Vigoda-Gadot. “The division of the blocs in Israel is not affected by security circumstances, but rather due to many other factors.
“On the other hand, if the operation had failed, it could have impacted those who are undecided about their vote. The way the events played out serves as a stabilizer of voting patterns, not as a changing factor,” he added.
However, as a country with myriad security challenges, security matters are still a major factor when citizens decide which party to support.
“The military and security considerations carry considerable weight for the Israeli voter,” said Vigoda-Gadot.
Just before the events in Gaza, Lapid and his government were under fire as the cost-of-living in Israel continued to skyrocket. But when Israelis vote, they tend to forget about their shrinking pockets and remember the warning sirens that sent many of them running to bomb shelters.
By his side during the military operation, Lapid had Defense Minister Benny Gantz. A former military chief of staff, Gantz is the more experienced of the two. After the elections he could find himself as a kingmaker, with his Blue and White party currently polling as the third largest.
“He also scored points during this operation, as an experienced and responsible leader who can manage the system during testing hours,” said Vigoda-Gadot.
Lapid and Gantz have had their fair share of political rivalry in recent years, despite or perhaps because they are in the same bloc. Gantz also served as defense minister under Netanyahu.
Looking forward to the upcoming election, it was important for Lapid and Gantz to appear as managing the military conflict while transcending any political competition.
“Gantz will try to position himself as a stable factor needed alongside any type of leader,” said Lebel.
The upcoming election will be determined by a small number of voters who will give either bloc the narrow majority needed in order to form a coalition. In Israel, where events develop quickly and collective memory is often short, a military escalation in the summer may become distant history come the fall election.
For Lapid, however, the three days in August when he commanded an operation were much needed.
“Until now, he had the political potential of forming a coalition, but he lacked the ability to project a sense of leadership,” Lebel summarized.
For many within his bloc who may have been hesitant, this might have just changed.
The story is written by Keren Setton and reprinted with permission from The Media Line.