Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom.
‘God’ said Mark Twain, ‘is the most popular scapegoat for our sins.’ For the Israeli left, reeling since last Tuesday evening, it seems Yair Lapid will have to do.
‘The man who was responsible for managing this battle mismanaged it,’ said Labor leader Merav Michaeli, redefining chutzpah. For Michaeli it was who had rejected Lapid’s pleas that Labor form a joint list with Meretz to avoid the risk of either party falling below the threshold, wasting votes and Knesset seats.
On cue, just as Lapid had warned, Meretz received 3.16 per cent of the votes, falling 4,000 votes short of the threshold.
Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi also ignored Lapid’s pleas. They split their parties from Balad at the last minute and then rejected a surplus vote agreement with the United Arab List. Maybe another three Knesset seats were thrown away.
Michaeli, revealingly, has complained that Lapid failed to ‘get the Arab parties to’ unite or sign surplus vote agreements.’ (And how exactly might he have ‘got’ them to do that? A Michaelian silence.)
Presumably Lapid was similarly asleep on the job when Sami Abu Shehadeh split from the split and blew another 125,000 votes.
In short, sectarianism and ego on the Zionist left and among the Arab parties blew 300,000 votes and the six seats that could have denied the Netanyahu-Ben-Gvir-Smotrich-Deri bloc a victory, but somehow it’s the fault of… Lapid.
Lapid is even being blamed for ‘cannabalising’ the votes of other left-bloc parties. In other words Yesh Atid campaigned too well and won ‘too many’ votes. But Israel is, unlike the UK, in effect a single constituency, denying parties the option of making a tactically-token effort in selected local constituencies. And it does not seem to have occurred to Meretz-niks that people may have knowingly punished their party because it was the actions of its MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi that ended the coalition and started this landslide. Or because it still talks about the peace process as if it’s the 1990s, which makes it popular with Western leftists performing a radical identity but not with Israelis who have lived through the decades since. As for Labor, it has been dying on its feet for many years. Lapid, apparently, should have used his Marvel superpowers to reverse that secular trend too.
Lapid, no doubt, should also have stopped Hadash MK’s frightening Israeli voters, driving them to the polls with a series of inflammatory statements. Why did he allow Hadash MK Ofer Cassif to broadcast to the Israeli people his opinion that terrorists are not really terrorists and settlers are legitimate targets? Could he not have prevented MK Aida Touma-Sliman declaring the Nablus ‘Lions Den killers to be ‘our martyrs’?
Yair Lapid created Yesh Atid (‘There is a Future’) in 2012 as a centrist political force amidst a dying and fissiparous left. He kept the party together through long years of slog in the opposition – while being routinely disdained by the ever-changing incarnations of the Zionist left – until he could be a key architect of the historic coalition that displaced Netanyahu and brought Israel’s Arab citizens into government in the form of Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List / Ra’am. (Only his willingness to rotate with Bennett, and to let Bennett go first, made that coalition viable.) He has established Yesh Atid as a solid pole of attraction for mainstream Israelis, built up trust in the party, increased its vote share, offered a more attractive face to the world, opposed racism and helped to keep the two state paradigm alive.
And he has done all that while the ridiculous Israeli game has played on a loop to his left. Is it musical political chairs? Political bed hopping? A reenactment of the Monty Python sketch about the enmity between the Peoples Front of Judea and the Judean Peoples Front? (‘Splitters!’) Or is it all of that and more?
Without question there are long-term causes of the Israeli left’s demise: changing demographics and the cultural fragmentation of the country into President Rivlin’s ‘four tribes’; the displacement of a social democratic and collectivist culture by neoliberalism and possessive individualism; Palestinian maximalism, rejectionism and terror, causing the failure of the left’s Oslo project and the discrediting (perhaps permanently) of the left per se; and atop all that is the electorate’s justified fear, despite the promise of the Abraham Accords, of the bloody region, with all its pathologies and all its monsters.
But other failings are home grown. The left and the Arab parties have failed to move from muck-raking journalism and moral protest to politics proper: unity behind stable political leaderships armed with viable political strategies and organisational forms; the steady construction of a historic bloc of social forces able to win and hold political power.
The scapegoat, it has been said, is often the mentally healthiest member of a toxic family. Whatever his faults, such has been the position of Yair Lapid within the ‘family’ of the left bloc this last week. He might be forgiven for repeating – with a wry smile and a shrug, before he gets back to work – a line from the novelist Daphne Du Maurier: ‘I cannot ask for forgiveness for something I have not done. As scapegoat, I can only bear the fault.’