Benjamin Netanyahu V. Yair Lapid, And The Psychology Of Israeli Decision-making
It is the makeup of Israeli political leaders that needs to be understood, especially the psychology behind their decisionmaking. This process compounds the Zionist roots that led to the creation of the modern State of Israel in addition to identifying the steams of Zionism that impact Israel’s leaders today. Such historical nuances, between men and ideas, and powerful men and their equally impressive fathers, are critical but poorly understood by outside observers. The relationships between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid and their fathers are therefore key to appreciating the latest results of Israel’s general elections and understanding Zionism today.
Both fathers, Benzion Netanyahu and Tommy Lapid – were larger than life figures who grew up in a world before there was a State of Israel, and who navigated through the turbulence of its creation and early years. Their sons are now trying to keep the Zionist dream alive and relevant, triangulating their fathers’ respective legacies and the realities of the 21st century. The direction they choose will impact the Zionism of 2013.
Benzion Netanyahu who recently passed away at 102, was a renowned expert on the history of the Jews in Spain and a member of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s revisionist party. Benjamin Netanyahu in turn, has been a loyal son and prime minister who has followed his father’s doctrine, as illustrated by the countless public addresses that reflect his father’s worldview. For example, in a speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu correctly described the threat posed by Iran as a new Holocaust, comparing those who dislike the analogy to the “Jewish intellectuals” in Warsaw who “ridiculed Jabotinsky.” In his address to the annual AIPAC meeting in Washington he equated today’s leaders in Iran with the scoundrel of the Book of Esther, “a Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people.” Such views and rhetoric reflect his father’s understanding of history as well as his passion.
In contrast, Yair Lapid’s father, the late Joseph, better known as ‘Tommy,’ was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who died in 2008. He foreshadowed his son’s recent political sensation with the Yesh Atid party when he formed the liberal-secular Shinui party in 2003. Tommy achieved a comparable breakthrough when he won 15 seats in the 2003 elections before entering a coalition with prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Tommy Lapid was the correspondent for the Israeli newspaper, Maariv, in London in the 1960s and later the head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Yair Lapid captured the essence of his father in his bestselling book, Memories After My Death: The Story Of Joseph “Tommy” Lapid. There he describes his father’s professional exploits, including pushing through crowds at a Buckingham Palace diplomatic reception to shake hands with the Queen and attending Winston Churchill’s funeral. Lapid was well-known for his confrontational style on television and radio, as well as for his secularist views.
Politically, Netanyahu and Lapid are at odds given the contrast in their Zionist makeup. This will likely impact the direction of Israel’s foreign policy with regard to a potential peace process with the Palestinians. Some have argued that Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar Ilan University speech, where he spoke of a “demilitarized” Palestinian state, signaled movement away from Benzion’s ideology. It was Netanyahu who accepted a two-state solution and then enforced, upon American demands, a 10-month moratorium on settlement building, which was also an attempt to reach out to the center left.
But centrist parties like Shinui and Yesh Atid in Israel have had a longevity problem, something that was also seen with the Kadima experiment that faded after Ariel Sharon. For the moment, Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party, bring unique street credibility to the Knesset. Many Israelis see Lapid as the voice of the recent “Cottage Cheese Revolution” over economic inequality. Lapid’s Zionist view, oriented towards fairer domestic economic and social arrangements, is different than that of Netanyahu’s ‘old school’ security-centric approach. But both are required to lead the Israel of today.
While the threats to Israel have only mushroomed as a result of the rise of Islamist regimes, Iran, and the ongoing challenges with the Palestinians, Lapid’s surge symbolizes an attempt to find a new balance or “normality” within the Israeli middle class. The challenge is that while the domestic social problems are real, external security threats still challenge Israel’s very existence. The nature of these threats, and Israel’s responses, are something that most Israelis of the Left, Right or Center all agree upon. It is here where both Netanyahu and Lapid should remember their fathers’ messages.
Asaf Romirowsky PhD is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.