JERUSALEM – Political newcomer Yair Lapid believes he has finally found a formula that will allow him to do something that has eluded Israeli politicians for nearly a decade: defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an election.
Just three years after Lapid gave up a successful media career for the rough-and-tumble of Israeli politics, his centrist Yesh Atid party has been surging in opinion polls — repeatedly coming out ahead of Netanyahu's long-dominant Likud Party. Although elections are not scheduled until 2019, few Israeli governments last for their full terms.
In an interview at his office in the Knesset, Lapid attributed his recent success to hard work by his party's lawmakers and the appeal of a moderate party in a country that has been pushed to extremes.
"The concept of a center party, of people who are pragmatic and moderate and look for solutions, instead of sticking to extreme ideologies, is more and more appealing, at least in this country," he said.
Netanyahu presides over a hard-line coalition that is dominated by nationalist allies of the West Bank settler movement. Now in his third consecutive term, Netanyahu remains in control as long as key partners maintain the coalition.
But he and his allies are under tremendous pressure from powerful groups in Israel that bitterly oppose the government — sustaining a siege atmosphere and sense of constant peril in government circles. Many among the security establishment, academia, the cultural community and media have been at loggerheads with Netanyahu for years.
Among the contentious issues are policies that appear to be aimed at stifling dovish critics. Peace efforts with the Palestinians have been frozen for years, while settlement construction in occupied territories has steamed ahead — leading to repeated run-ins with the United States and other key allies.
At home, Netanyahu is heading into a stormy winter parliamentary session that will tackle a series of issues that each could threaten his coalition from within. The government faces a court-ordered Dec. 25 deadline to evacuate an illegal West Bank outpost — over the objections of key coalition partners — and a state watchdog agency is set to issue a potentially damaging report on the government's handling of a 2014 war in the Gaza Strip.
But the most galvanizing issue for Netanyahu's rivals is the sense that the country's liberal democracy is under assault. An example of that is Netanyahu's contentious plan to reform the state-run broadcast authority that critics say is aimed at increasing his control of local media.
"I think we have ahead of us in this Knesset session a very heated dispute about the word Israeli, where the country is going to, in all fields of living, from the relationship with the international community, with the Jewish world, economy security, so on so forth," Lapid said. He declined to criticize Netanyahu, saying it was inappropriate to do so in an interview with foreign media.
A former author, columnist, news anchor and bank pitchman, Lapid burst onto the political scene in 2013, leading his newfound Yesh Atid to a surprisingly strong showing in parliamentary elections that year. Promising relief for Israel's struggling middle class, as well as an end to draft exemptions for religious seminary students, Yesh Atid finished as the second-largest party, with 19 seats in the 120-member parliament.
Lapid, known for his wide grin and black attire, took on the job of finance minister, a difficult and often thankless task.
While marking some successes, such as raising payments to Holocaust survivors, his key promises of lowering the cost of living and bringing down housing prices failed to materialize. He ultimately was fired by Netanyahu for insubordination.
In last year's election, Yesh Atid dropped to just 11 seats and Lapid found himself in the opposition. It appeared set to become the latest in a string of centrist parties to enjoy early success and quickly flame out.
But Lapid has proven wilier, using his time in the opposition to reinvent himself. Once seen as an unofficial spokesman for the country's secular middle class, he has toned down his attacks on the country's ultra-Orthodox community and even embraced some religious rituals. Appealing to Netanyahu's base, he has joined the prime minister in bashing the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO for passing resolutions seen as anti-Israeli. He also has joined the prime minister in condemning dovish Israeli human rights groups that criticize Israeli policies to overseas audiences.
His tactics have drawn criticism that Lapid is becoming a mild-mannered version of Netanyahu — a charge he rejects. But recent polls have shown Yesh Atid winning as many as 27 seats if elections were held today, with at least some of those seats apparently siphoned off from Likud.
Skepticism certainly remains about Lapid's chances against Netanyahu. Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said Lapid is benefiting from a protest instinct in the polls, "but between this and actually taking on Netanyahu, this is going to be a different world."
Lapid said that while he and Netanyahu are both "patriots" who believe in Israel as a "just cause," there are key differences, especially regarding Mideast peace and strengthening relations with the international community.
Lapid said that Israel must find a way to separate from the Palestinians, as soon as possible, with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. With continued Israeli control over millions of Palestinians who do not have voting rights, "we will either lose the Jewish majority or the democratic nature of Israel or both, and I'm not willing for this to happen," he said. He called the pursuit of peace part of his "life's mission."
Saying that the traditional model of direct, bilateral talks with the Palestinians has failed, Lapid called for a different approach with regional and international backing. He said Arab countries, especially Jordan and Egypt, which also share borders with the Palestinians, should participate in negotiations, along with wealthy Gulf countries. He also said that international powers could serve as "moderators."
He said he was skeptical about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' ability to deliver a peace deal — but that Israel cannot sit and do nothing.
"This is existential to the future of Israel that we will separate from the Palestinians," he said.