“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill
The Israeli voter has had his say. In elections last week he gave 19 mandates, essentially the keys to the next government, to a telegenic media personality who promised everything from cheap housing for the secular masses, to electoral reform, to “equal service for all,” meaning the draft of yeshivah students (since no one is talking about forcing Israeli Arabs to serve in the army).
While Yair Lapid’s campaign played down the comatose peace process, he has made it clear in post-election interviews that he intends to take care of the Palestinian problem, as well. All in a day’s work.
“We will deal with that [the peace process] too, but my first commitment is to the Israeli middle class,” he said in an interview. “If we have an equal share of the burden, a small Cabinet free of ministers without portfolio, and we solve our housing problems … these things strengthen the peace process. The peace process requires a healthy, functioning Israeli society.”
The fact that Lapid has never served as a Knesset member or held a Cabinet post did not prevent him from predicting that he would be elected prime minister in the next elections. It also does not prevent him from being touted for a top ministerial post in the coming government. And this is cause for concern.
While Lapid has rich experience as a columnist, solving a wide array of problems — from crowded classrooms to religious-secular tensions to Palestinian violence — in 2,000 words or less, he has never had to implement any of his proposals, or pay a price if they proved wrong.
You can’t blame Israeli voters for being swept up by a charismatic master of the sound-bite who promises change. Why should they be any different than voters in other democracies?
The problem is that Israel isn’t like other democracies. It can’t afford to experiment with unknowns in key positions. When, in 2006, Amir Peretz, a one-time Histadrut labor chief with no senior military experience, was appointed defense minister, the country paid for it dearly with the disastrous Second Lebanon War.
The security situation is more tenuous than ever. As Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to lose his grip on power, there is deep concern in Israel, and the West, that his chemical weapons arsenal could fall into the hands of Hizbullah or world jihad. Israel can’t afford to stand by and watch this happen, but military intervention risks a massive response from Hizbullah, and possibly from Iran.
Egypt, the best-armed military power in the Arab world, is, according to its own defense minister, on the brink of collapse. While the “Arab Spring” revolution succeeded in unseating Hosni Mubarak, it did not bring Egypt a democratic government capable of addressing the elementary needs of its people. The result is chaos, deeper poverty and increased violence for Israel’s huge southern neighbor.
Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons. This week brought wonderful, though unconfirmed, news of an explosion at Fordo, Iran’s second-largest nuclear facility and the site of 2,700 centrifuges, all enriching uranium to a level that allows it to be weaponized. But it also brought news that Iran successfully sent a monkey into space. While Iran is free to send as many monkeys into space as it wants, there is concern that technology from its space program could also be used to develop long-range missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads.
The problems on the domestic front are no less daunting. A budget has to be passed that includes billions in cuts. The task requires a good grounding in economics, an understanding of the basic needs of all the sectors and how to try to meet them in an equitable way, and the political savvy to get the budget passed in the Knesset.
When it comes to the peace process, Lapid would do well to lower his expectations. The core problem — that the most any Israeli government can offer is short of what any Palestinian leader will accept — was true for Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu. And it’s likely to be true as well for Yair Lapid.
As far as drafting yeshivah students, Lapid has to understand that reality is much more complex than his columns. No one is going to force full-time yeshivah students to leave the beis medrash and join the army. Moreover, there is no greater national service than Torah study.
This is not to say that Lapid does not have a lot going for him. He’s personable and bright, and he appears to have a much more balanced and favorable attitude toward the chareidi world than did his late father.
Lapid ran a successful campaign because he was realistic. He never said he wanted to be prime minister and he never rejected sitting with Netanyahu in a government. He must continue to be realistic enough, and modest enough, to understand that while charisma and promises of change can win Knesset seats, they are not enough to run a country.
If he enters the government as a senior partner, he is guaranteed one of the three senior portfolios: defense, finance or foreign affairs. Though his campaign centered on domestic issues, we would recommend that he serve as foreign minister, where his English-speaking talents and familiarity with the media would help advance Israel’s cause in the international arena.