Benjamin Netanyahu forced the Finance portfolio on Yair Lapid. He made a cold political calculation: Lapid's popularity, he thought, would come to an end once he is required to impose painful spending cuts on the public. After all, Bibi was aware of the unfortunate situation of the budget he was handing over to Lapid. Everyone was.
Netanyahu's success in getting Lapid to give in was perceived at the time as political genius: Another demonstration of his wonderful maneuvering and tricking skills. The experienced Bibi, commentators explained enthusiastically, taught the novice Lapid a lesson in the art of forming a government.
A short while later, it turns out that the new finance minister is not following the script Netanyahu wrote for him. Lapid is dealing with the budgetary problems in his own way, which is different from the way other finance ministers took in similar situations. If anything, he is showing signs of resembling his predecessor, Dr. Yuval Steinitz.
Steinitz, as opposed to the label attached to him, was a social finance minister. Lapid, as opposed to the label people are trying to attach to him, is also an ideological finance minister: He says he has a vision he seeks to fulfill during his term. A vision focused on improving the standard of living of the working Israeli and his reciprocal relations with the State. The working Israeli, not the Israeli who avoids working.
Lapid's approach towards the budget as a tool for fulfilling his vision is accepted by the large majority of his supporters and voters. And not just by them: According to surveys, his popularity as finance minister is unprecedented at this stage of his tenure. His public indecisions are not perceived as zigzagging, but as real misgivings. The painful steps he is about to take are not affecting, according to additional surveys, his reliability.
One cannot ignore Lapid's disregard of Netanyahu either. There is an enormous difference here between him and Steinitz in their first steps in the Treasury. Steinitz referred to Bibi as his spiritual father, the great economic mentor. Netanyahu's advisors maneuvered the agreements between the Treasury and the Histadrut labor federation at the time with an iron fist.
Lapid, on the other hand, is ignoring Netanyahu. As finance minister, he has made it a rule not to mention his name in his speeches, not to lean on him or praise him. It turns out that Lapid did not only get the Treasury, he completely took it away from Bibi. He wants to be a magician, not his apprentice.
Bibi always comes out the loserIn the meantime, Lapid continues to make headlines. Every word he or his keyboard utter are quoted widely and receive numerous commentaries. He is in the headlines, at the top of public interest. He has already ousted Netanyahu from the list of the world's 100 most influential people, and he may also oust him from the list of Israeli friends of Jewish American billionaires.
If Lapid were foreign minister, as he wanted to be and as Netanyahu wouldn't let him be, he would have gotten caught in the thick fog of a "peace process," posing for photographs alongside unidentified officials form America and dealing with the appointment of ambassadors in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Netanyahu is just beginning to realize the serious political mistake he made when he insisted on shoving the Finance portfolio into Lapid's hands. If Lapid fails, the failure will harm Netanyahu, who forced him to enter the lion's den without any preparation. And if Lapid succeeds as finance minister, his success will also harm Netanyahu: The aura of the economic magician will be taken away from him. This is, therefore, a political game in which Netanyahu always comes out the loser.
The Likud loses too: The ruling party, which failed to keep the Treasury to itself, is increasingly looking like a party without authority. The Likud ministers are already complaining about Lapid's plan to cut their ministries' budgets. The unrest against Bibi at the top of his party will only increase. So what will the prime minister do in order to restore his political power; what political and security-related moves will he advance, or at least try to advance?
That is a very big question.