Yair Lapid of the centrist Blue and White party said on Wednesday that Israel is “in the midst of a national crisis” with its democracy being undermined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that the upcoming Knesset elections would be a referendum on corruption. If Netanyahui is reelected, Lapid claimed, he would immediately pass legislation to give himself immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases for which, the attorney general announced last week, he is facing criminal charges.
“It’s a crisis, I’m telling you, where corruption is penetrating our lives. Where the government, instead of protecting democracy, is attacking democracy,” Lapid warned.
“If there is no free press, if there is no strong Supreme Court, the little man will have nowhere to go. If something happens to you that is unjust, you will have no one to approach,” he said. “The police, the courts, the free media — these are what we are. We cannot have a prime minister who is attacking this because he has some problems.”
Lapid was speaking to a standing-room-only event co-hosted by The Times of Israel with the Tel Aviv International Salon. Interviewed by The Times of Israel’s founding editor David Horovitz in the latest one-on-one English-language event ahead of the April 9 elections, Lapid said that he has known Netanyahu for over 20 years, but that in the last few the Israeli premier has changed.
“I know him well. I know his family… I never saw this. This is not the person I [used to] know,” he told the approximately 500 people at ZOA House in Tel Aviv.
Yair Lapid (right) interviewed by Times of israel editor David Horovitz at an event co-hosted with the Tel Aviv International Salon on March 6, 2019 (Tel Aviv International Salon)
Lapid said that Netanyahu has begun attacking the legitimacy of the police, the attorney general and other democratic institutions as he seeks to extricate himself from the corruption allegations he faces.
“Something happened [to him] in the last couple of years. There’s a total degradation of his respect for what is holding us together, because he has personal problems.”
“It is especially dangerous when you are the prime minister and you are convinced that the only way to avoid prison is to remain prime minister,” said Lapid. “Then it’s a carte blanche to do anything, to say anything and to go low.”
The mud slinging from Netanyahu is “going to get much worse” in the coming days of the campaign, he predicted.
Lapid said he was convinced that if reelected, the prime minister would do his utmost to pass a series of three laws “as quickly as possible” that would provide him with immunity from prosecution — “there’s no doubt in my mind” about this.
The first would be “the immunity bill, introduced today by Bezalel Smotrich, that says you are not allowed to take a sitting prime minister to court,” said Lapid. “He will pass the extended French bill, which says that police may not even investigate a prime minister. Finally, he will pass a bill significantly limiting the ability of the Supreme Court to overrule bills” — so that the court cannot overrule those first two laws. “This is ‘the end of the world as we know it,’ as the song says,” warned Lapid.
Lapid said that such laws, if passed, would place the prime minister above the law. “This would be a complete transformation of the character of Israeli democracy. The idea of all people created equal will be replaced by, well, someone is not equal to you guys, and he is allowed to do things and he will never pay for what he did… This is the quagmire we are sinking into as we speak.”
Asked whether he thought Israeli democracy would be destroyed, Lapid replied that, no, the democracy was being targeted, but “Israeli democracy has resilience.” He added, though, that his father, the late journalist and Holocaust survivor Tommy Lapid, taught him not to take anything for granted.
“There’s no comparing the Holocaust to anything… but my father, who survived the ghetto, used to tell me that ‘you native born Israelis have no idea how fragile your way of life really is. You think you live in this house or this apartment… and the electricity works and your car drives. And you think this is the way it always was and it always will be. It is not. One day there can be a knock on the door…’”
Yair Lapid and Times of Israel editor David Horovitz on stage at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv, March 6. 2019 (Simona Weinglass/Times if Israel)
“Democracy is a fragile idea,” Lapid added. “After World War II, there were two generations that suffered post-trauma and they created institutions like the UN to prevent another catastrophe.”
But the third generation, he said, are unaware of the dangers or the possibility that their way of life could change.
“Democratic institutions don’t just protect us; we need to protect them,” he said.
Lapid said that there were two events that made him decide to set aside his ego and join forces with his running mate Benny Gantz in an effort to topple Netanyahu. The first was that the prime minister brokered a deal that would allow into the Knesset the far-right wing Otzma Yehudit party, whom he called “admirers of Baruch Goldstein,” who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs.
Left, Bezalel Smotrich after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a drill of the Armored Corps in Shizafon Base, in southern Israel on January 23, 2019. (Flash90)
The second was that Netanyahu promised Smotrich that he would be the next minister of education. “This is not extreme right; this is pure racism,” Lapid said of Smotrich’s positions on Arabs. “This is the guy who said, I don’t want my wife to give birth [in a maternity ward] next to an Arab woman.”
By merging with Gantz to bolster the prospects of defeating Netanyahu, he said, he realized that “I have the ability and power to prevent something that is very wrong happening to my beloved country, and therefore I ought to do it.”
Too few women and the cost of living
Lapid said it was “wrong” that there are so few women in top slots of the Blue and White party’s Knesset list, blaming the “mistake” on the hurried merging of his Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience.
“We didn’t want to create the party of men… We know how it looks and we are determined to fix it.”
He claimed the party would make up for it by appointing women to top positions in government should it win. “We have six women in the first 20,” he also pointed out, compared to three in Likud’s top 20.
Asked by a member of the audience how he would lower the cost of living in Israel, he said “you need to continuously balance need to lower prices as much as possible— through cheap imports– but at the same time you don’t want Israeli factories closed and people laid off.”
He also accused the current government of spending vast amounts of money on corrupt patronage schemes and unnecessary luxuries, like the prime minister’s airplane.
“This government spent 10 billion shekels on political agreements. They give away money for politics. They take money away from the Health and Welfare Ministries and give it to politicians like [Likud MK] Miki Zohar and Smotrich, who spend it on the wrong things.”
To an audience member’s remark about how well the Israeli economy is doing, Lapid replied, “If the economy is so great, how come you don’t feel it? How come the cost of living is so high?… We are now living on the last fuel of the start-up nation. We have to create the next generation of engineers… We didn’t build a new hospital in years… I want Israelis to be able to go to the supermarket and fill their [shopping carts] without spending their whole salary.”
Lapid also said he would work to improve relations with the Democratic party in the United States, parts of which have grown increasingly disenchanted with Israel of late. He stressed that there must be full equality for all streams of Judaism in Israel, citing, to warm applause, what he said must be the equal rights of Reform and Conservative Jews.
He also vowed to find a secure way to separate from the Palestinians while making sure that Israel can still pursue terrorists in Palestinian territory, Israel keeps control of the Jordan Valley, there is no “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem is not divided.
“We need a regional conference” with moderate Arab states, “[to] start the very long, hesitant, cautious road toward separation from the Palestinians under a two-state solution,” he said.
“It should be a very tough agreement… and your generation will have to make this into something more,” he said to the predominantly young adult crowd. “But we need to start.”