Prime Minister Yair Lapid insists he will not form a coalition with the predominately Arab Joint List or succumb to Haredi pressure on matters of basic education, if he forms the next government.
Lapid spoke to Ynet on the eve of the Jewish New Year and said he was not surprised to find himself leading the government.
"When we formed our coalition, it was clear to me that I would serve as prime minister," he said. "I hoped this would come only after two years of Bennett at the helm and that our government would last its full term," he said.
"Yesh Atid party was formed to be a ruling party," he said. "we believed there was a polarization in the political arena that had to be opposed," he said.
Lapid ascended to the premiership after his political partner the previous prime minister Naftali Bennett's government was dissolved in the Knesset, last June after members Bennett's own party, defected to the other camp.
Lapid who was credited for forming the coalition, made up of parties spanning the entire political spectrum, entered the prime minister's office to head the interim government until a new one is elected.
Has the Israeli public become accustomed to Prime Minister Yair Lapid?
"You must ask the public," Lapid said. "In fact, the public will answer that in the elections, but I think it has. I think on one level or another, people say: here is a man with considerable experience in public service, who was a finance minister, a member of the security cabinet, an opposition leader, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, foreign minister and someone who had served as alternate prime minister for over a year," he said.
"I have stood in every important intersection, which prepared me for the role, so I think the public had naturally accepted the fact. Not everyone though, we are talking about politics," he said.
"We had 72 dramatic hours, on the first of July, and at 3 am, after only three hours in the job, my brother-in-law called from Los Angeles to tell us that he was dying. My wife hurried to his side and he passed away three days later so we had no celebrations. That moment is mixed with sadness. I was also sad for Bennett who had to step down from the premiership after only one year," he said.
Were you surprised he handed you the job, so easily?
" No, he is a decent man and our partnership was built on trust that survived quite a bit, Lapid said. "We both entered politics in 2012 and formed an alliance so this was not our first partnership in government, but our second," he said.
Do you think he was to blame for the fall of his coalition for change having failed to control his party members?
" I don't see it like that, and I never think who is to blame," Lapid said. "I see who has taken responsibility. You cannot blame him for the decisions taken by Idit Silman [who defected from Bennett's party] in her life. People are responsible for their own decisions.
So why not let him stay on as prime minister, and ensure a continuation of leadership?
"That is not how it works in this kind of coalition and would not be a good idea," he said.
"When this type of coalition [with alternate premiers] was first formed with [former prime minister] Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, I was dead against it but when we came to power, we form our coalition based on the same law. I agree with Bennett that our failure was a result of a massive hate campaign which used illegitimate means," he said.
Who is behind it?
"Netanyahu and his people," he said. "I sat in the plenum one day with Yomtob Kalfon, [a member of Bennett's party.] We disagree on many things but he is a sweet man and he told me how he is being humiliated in his synagogue. The fact that a man who is praying in his own synagogue is being humiliated because of his political affiliation is in contradiction to the whole idea of what a synagogue is for Jews," Lapid said.
What had not worked in your coalition?
"This was a government that even its opponents conceded was a good one," Lapid said.
But it ultimately failed
"We did and are still doing things that were not done for years," Lapid said. "We are dealing with things that were ignored on a criminal level by the previous government. In terms of political maintenance, this was a challenging coalition to upkeep. One or two people switching sides was all that was needed for the government to fall," he said.
In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
"I would not have done anything differently, Lapid said "There was a critical existential need to form the coalition," he said.
Even if you had know that just one year on, the political chaos would return?
"It gave us a year's break from the chaos and without it I believe we would now be facing the 8th cycle of elections," Lapid said. "The coalition allowed us to stop the dangerous nuclear deal with Iran, deal with the COVID pandemic, without lockdowns, pass a budget, and advance important laws, such as one to care for disabled Israelis. We did great things, not done for years, and were a well-functioning government, so I have no regrets. I am proud of what we did" he said.
How do you differ from Netanyahu, whom you are so critical of?
"First of all, my motives are not personal," Lapid said. "I was not indicted for corruption and am not trying to avoid facing the courts, or attempting to destroy the legal system, to save my own skin," he said.
"I think the main difference is that he is concerned with what is good for him, and I am concerned with what is good for the citizens. His efforts are to destroy the Supreme Court and mine are to provide bigger stipends to the elderly, free education for veterans, and that the disabled would be able to work. This is the difference between a leader preoccupied with himself and one working for the good of the general public," he said.
Will you be the next prime minister?
"That is up to the voters," Lapid said. "I will try my hardest," he said.
As the final Knesset candidate lists were presented last week, Netanyahu was seen to have successfully solidified his political allies, while Lapid found he was at the head of a fractured potential alliance, with some of the factions at risk of failing to pass the minimum parliamentary threshold, which would waste valuable votes.
Netanyahu may have already secured the needed 61 seat support he needs to form a coalition.
"What I find strange is that people tell me that Netanyahu's conduct is abhorrent but at the same time ask me why I don't do the same," Lapid said. "I do not want to be like him," he said.
But he gets the job done.
"I don't know what that means. Look around you, where are we sitting?" Lapid asked. "We probably know how to conduct ourselves politically and form a coalition. There are things I would not be willing to do. I am an honest person. I will not promise the ultra-Orthodox parties that they will not have to provide basic education in their schools. No way," he said.
Netanyahu reportedly did promise to increase government funding to ultra-Orthodox schools despite their refusal to teach basic math, English and science, in order to keep their Knesset factions united, and ensure his parliamentary bloc.
But will the ultra-Orthodox agree to support your coalition if you offer them the same?
"No. There are values and principles involved," Lapid said. "There is a conception that in politics you have to ignore your values, but that is a corruptive position to take and I am leading a decent party and even a decent government," he said.
Do you envy Netanyahu for having such a loyal parliamentary bloc?
"I am not the envying type," Lapid said. "Certainly not because of something like that. If his bloc includes [far-right] Ben Gvir and Smotrich who are a danger to Israel, democracy and our Jewish and national values, I don't envy him for having to go to sleep with them as partners," he said.
Since becoming prime minister, Lapid is careful and more measured. He distances himself from the political brawls as if elections were not around the corner. He said he had learned from past mistakes. "I learned sometimes waiting a bit before making a decision is useful," he said but would not explain how he intended to form a coalition without the participation of the ultra-Orthodox or the predominately Arab Joint List alliance.
"I am not thinking about how to form a coalition, before election results are known," he said. "I am busy with running the country in the best way for its citizens and leading my party to the best election results. I will not play the numbers game," he said.
Were you involved in the breakup of the Joint List? How will it effect the future government?
"I was not involved and was surprised by their split," Lapid said. "I could not say how it would effect future coalition building because I don't know what the election results would be, the Arab Israelis have been neglected for years and I hope they come out to vote and understand that results can affect their daily lives in the most basic ways," he said.
Maybe they want to hear that the Joint List can be part of your government?
"The party has for years said it would not join any government, and they will not join mine," he said. I have no problem with them recommending me to the president, or working in partnership with them in the Knesset, for the benefit of the Arab sector. We've done so over the years. All government have and we relied on them less than Netanyahu had, not that he is a standard bearer," Lapid said.
So why the Islamist Ra'am and not the Joint List?
Because Ra'am wanted to be part of the government from day one and came with a complete civil agenda. They are an important part of our coalition," he said.
Do you see the Joint List as potential political partners?
"I will answer all questions after we have election results," Lapid said adding he does not deal in hypotheticals.
Lapid claims his working relations with Defense Minister Benny Gantz are good and that they speak daily. The two parted in a feud when Gantz decided to join a Netanyahu-led coalition in 2020, claiming the COVID pandemic crisis called for a viable government. But Netanyahu, who signed a coalition agreement ensuring a rotation of power with Gantz, soon reneged on his commitment, which ultimately led to yet another election and to his loss of power.
Would you agree to a power share with Netanyahu?
"I will not serve with Netanyahu," Lapid said.
Even if you were first in the rotation?
"I will not sit with Netanyahu," he said.
He is chosen by his party, time and again
"And now I am sitting in the prime minister's chair and he is not. He failed to establish a government four times and will fail again. The public does not choose him," Lapid said.
The Iran nuclear deal has thus far not been renewed while Lapid, unlike Netanyahu, avoided conflict with the U.S. administration.
"I am cautiously saying we have succeeded in preventing a deal," Lapid said. "There were long, patient efforts, which are ongoing, with the Americans and the Europeans, including exchanges of intelligence. From the start we decided we would have intense discussions behind closed door and ensure they take our intelligence more seriously than they had in the past, but we would not speak to the houses of congress or incite partisan squabbles," he said.
"Netanyahu's speech to Congress had us kicked out of the room [where decisions to sign the deal were made] and the U.S. refused to even see our intelligence information," he said.
"We knew Netanyahu had done little to fight the rising cost of living, or unite Israelis, so why would he do what is needed on Iran?" Lapid said. "We closed most of the gaps left by him, over the past year, with hard work." He said.
But that was Netanyahu's main rallying cry and you are telling me he did nothing?
" I was referring to the operational side. He did put the matter into public discourse, he deserves credit for that. He made it an issue on the international agenda," Lapid said. "But he also made many mistakes, and some had to be fixed.
So, what convinced the Americans?
"It began with the discussion on the Iranian Revolutionary Gurad Corps, and from there to the IAEA investigations," Lapid said. "That included much intelligence data and dialogue. They were convinced that Iran was not conducting an honest negotiation and were even deceitful in their covert actions and that it would be irresponsible to ignore the gaps in positions. This is still ongoing. The battle is not over.
Did Netanyahu suspend military preparations to strike Iran?
" I will not say more than was already said, on that front. I will say that we had to accelerate military preparedness, which had been neglected," he said.
Can there be a resolution with Gaza?
"Yes. I've presented a program for economy in exchange for security. Hamas is a terrible, murderous and antisemitic terror organization and we do not negotiate with terrorists," Lapid said. "But we can reach a long-term understanding that would build a viable economy for the Gaza Strip in exchange for the return of our MIAs and prisoners and security. That is our mission, but we have been stalled by the elections," he said adding that although Israel has been talking to Hamas it has always been through a third party and that is the prime minister's preference.
Lapid and his party have over the past decade, supported the establishment of a Palestinian state despite there being no negotiations or a chance for a peace deal, claiming ultimately there will be no other choice.
He knows it will not happen under his leadership now but was not afraid to utter the words two-state solution.
"I think that is the right course of action. My reservations are that we must maintain Israeli security interests and international assurances, which we have never received. But yes. I am for a two-state solution," he said.
That is farfetched in the current political reality.
"I did not claim this was possible tomorrow," Lapid said. "To me there are two mistakes hounding our lives. One is the mistake made by the right-wing that thinks inaction is fine, although there is already a doubt that a Jewish majority can be maintained between the river and the sea. Palestinians are not going anywhere, and all this talk about managing the conflict will lead us to a disastrous bi-national state, fatal for Zionism and Israel's Jewish identity " he said.
"On the left, those speaking about the end of the conflict, are mistaken. They envision us all signing a piece of paper and walking off into the sunset in an embrace. That will not happen," he said. "We must have a firm agreement to separate into two states, divided by high fences and a strong border and with arrangement in place to preserve our security," he said.
"I must admit I was very angry at [Palestinian President Mahmoud] after his comments on the 50 Holocausts he accused Israel of perpetrating against Palestinians. I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. I do not have any plans to meet him any time soon," he said.
The prime minister said that in light of the increased violence from Palestinians, there was an option on the table, for a full-scale military operation on the West Bank.
"We cannot accept attacks on our people or troops," he said.
The head of the Shin Bet Security Agency recently pointed to the polarization in Israeli society as a major threat to the country. How do you propose to deal with this?
"A good step is to form a coalition with parties from the left and the right, and with Jews and Arabs, who can talk to each other, Lapid said. "One of our biggest mistakes as a society is using the term unified. People do not want to unify with the likes of Ben Gvir, or with certain Arab members of Knesset. I think rather than unity, we should speak of mutual respect for those who hold different views and define what cannot be respected," he said.
But what of the discourse in Israeli society?
"This is a process and there are today two large movement working incite and prevent a healing process. The first is the movement around Netanyahu, that is only focused on his criminal trial. They seek to destroy our legal and political systems – those who are in place to maintain order, Lapid said. "The second is the movement around Ben Gvir, which aspires to end democracy and although its members sit full of smiles in TV studios, will take action to curb Israelis freedom, in disdain of their wishes. These are dangerous processes that we have blocked and must continue to do so," he said.