Lapid will face a stiff challenge in trying to find common ground among the range of anti-Netanyahu parties elected in March. As a bloc, they would control enough seats to secure a majority. But ideologically, they range from the far right to the far left of Israel’s political spectrum. They also include Israeli Arab parties that traditionally play no part in supporting governing coalitions but that may be needed this time.
What unites them is anger at Netanyahu’s refusal to step down after he was indicted in 2019 on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His opponents accuse the prime minister, who has failed to secure a governing majority in four elections, of clinging to power to stave off his legal peril.
“Israel is in a dangerous place; we don’t have a functioning government,” Lapid said at a party meeting on Monday. “The foundations are ready. We can form a government.”
Netanyahu reacted with anger at the turn of events.
“This will be a dangerous, left-wing government,” the prime minister said in a statement after Rivlin announced his selection of Lapid, “a lethal combination of incompetence and irresponsibility.”
Lapid is the most liberal of the rivals who lined up to challenge Netanyahu in the March election, Israel’s fourth in less than two years. The son of a former justice minister and a novelist, Lapid achieved celebrity status as a television news anchor in the 1990s and 2000s. He now heads the center-left Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party, one of the largest opposition factions in the Knesset.
In four straight elections, he campaigned almost exclusively on the need to depose Netanyahu, saying his divisive tactics were having a corrosive effect on Israeli politics and culture. In 2019, with former Army chief of staff Benny Gantz, he co-founded the new Blue and White party, which attracted significant support in each of the campaigns. Lapid split with Gantz last year when Gantz broke a pledge never to serve with Netanyahu and joined the prime minister in a power-sharing government, citing the emergency situation of the pandemic.
Gantz, who serves as both defense and justice minister, on Tuesday endorsed Lapid’s bid to form a government.
Lapid entered politics in 2012, on the heels of grass-roots social protests that demanded more government focus on issues of justice, income inequality and support for the middle class. In the past year, Lapid has again tried to tap the energy of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who gather in weekly protests — often lining highway overpasses — calling for an end to state corruption and for Netanyahu to step down.
Lapid is one of the few leading politicians willing to express support for a Palestinian state. The alternative, in which Israel is responsible for providing services to millions of Palestinians, he has said, would be the “end of Zionism.”
But while he received the second-highest number of votes in the March elections, after Netanyahu’s Likud party, Lapid will struggle to unite a kaleidoscope of ideologically disparate parties.
The biggest wild card is expected to be former defense minister Naftali Bennett, a Netanyahu ally-turned-rival who resisted multiple overtures from the prime minister in recent weeks. Bennett declined to endorse Lapid on Tuesday, instead asking Rivlin to award him the mandate to negotiate a new government. But he indicated he is open to joining an anti-Netanyahu government.
“For two and a half years, the state of Israel has been in an endless spin of elections, as if a disease of self-destruction has gripped the country,” Bennett said Tuesday. “The truth is simple. Netanyahu failed to form a right-wing government.”
One member of Bennett’s Yamina party resigned Wednesday to protest his possible alliance with the “Change Coalition.”
In a gesture rare in Israel’s rough-and-tumble politics, Lapid has said he would let someone other than himself take the prime minister’s office to unseat Netanyahu, install a new government and prevent a fifth election.
He recently met with Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist Raam party, Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List, and Ahmad Tibi, a prominent Arab Knesset member, and has said he would not oppose sitting alongside Arab parties.
“After two years of an ongoing political nightmare, Israeli society is wounded,” Lapid said Wednesday. “A unity government isn’t a compromise; it is the goal.”
Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Lapid’s message of compromise is a conscious contrast to Netanyahu’s long history of divisive rhetoric and policies, which have exacerbated Israel’s long-simmering identity crisis over the character of the Israeli state.
“The right takes the more national, religious interpretation,” Talshir said. “The Lapid center-left is providing a more secular view, where Israel is still the nation-state of the Jews, but with a more tolerant, more democratic vision.”