(JNS) Back in 2019, Caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid infamously accused his opponent, then-prime minister and current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, of dictatorial tendencies and contempt for democracy. Speaking at an anti-Netanyahu demonstration, Lapid said, “Listen Bibi!…We won’t let you be Erdogan. There will be no Turkish dictator here…We won’t let you destroy the country. This is our country. You’re not above the law. We won’t let you be a dictator.”
Like everyone, Netanyahu has his flaws. But throughout his long years in office, he never demonstrated any dictatorial tendencies. To the contrary, Netanyahu earned the fury of many in his political camp by repeatedly bringing leftist parties into his governing coalitions.
Absurd in their own right, Lapid’s noxious bids to demonize Netanyahu as a tyrant are downright laughable when viewed in the context of Lapid’s behavior since he took over as caretaker prime minister when the government he formed with Naftali Bennett lost a confidence vote in the Knesset four months ago and new elections were called.
Indeed, when considered in the context of Lapid’s now four-month-old premiership, his castigation of Netanyahu read like an exercise in psychological projection. Lapid, who stands at the helm of a transition government without a mandate from the people, is more contemptuous of democratic norms and institutions than any Israeli prime minister in public memory.
Maybe we should have seen it coming. Lapid’s demonization of Netanyahu is just one example of Lapid’s standard practice of vilifying and delegitimizing his political opponents and their voters. Lapid referred to Likud voters as “s***s” in a television interview. He insists that Israelis who vote for parties in the right/religious bloc are motivated by “dark forces,” and a “poison machine.”
Like his late father, former Justice Minister and Israel’s long-time resident Archie Bunker Tommy Lapid, the caretaker premier invented himself in politics as a liberal, champion of free markets on the one hand and an anti-religious, and anti-Mizrachi bigot on the other hand.
All the same, the contempt for democracy that Lapid has exhibited by word and deed since seizing the reins of power in June has been shocking, and alarming. Two actions stand out.
First, on Sept. 28, Lapid and his Yesh Atid party petitioned the Central Elections Commission (CEC) asking that it label Israel’s only non-leftist aligned television station Channel 14, a propaganda outlet. (Full disclosure, the author is Channel 14’s diplomatic commentator.)
Channel 14 launched on the open airwaves last December. It models itself after Fox News. Its programming schedule is comprised of all-day news programs followed by primetime news/opinion shows. “The Patriots,” Channel 14’s highest-rated flagship show, broadcasts five nights a week and bills itself as satirical.
In his petition, Lapid did not claim that Channel 14 serves as a campaign outlet for Likud. Rather, he insisted that Channel 14 is an election propaganda organ because it doesn’t provide him with supportive coverage.
Lapid’s petition was an existential threat to the struggling new channel. Channel 14 is already starved of advertising revenue. Israel’s advertising industry is effectively a cartel controlled by a handful of ad agencies owned by leftists. They have refused to permit their clients to advertise on the station despite its quickly growing ratings. Just as bad, the government, Israel’s largest advertiser, refused to broadcast ads on Channel 14 for its first three months of broadcasts. It took intervention by opposition lawmakers, and proof that Channel 14’s ratings had skyrocketed to convince the government ad office to stop discriminating against it.
Last week the CEC rejected Lapid’s petition. But had it been accepted, Channel 14 would have been barred from running any commercials at all until after the elections. And that’s not the least of it. Had the CEC accepted Lapid’s petition, Channel 14 would have lost its broadcast license altogether because running propaganda is prohibited under its licensing terms.
In other words, Lapid tried to use the CEC as a means to shut down the only broadcast outlet in Israel that doesn’t support him, or to use Lapid’s parlance, that doesn’t propagandize on his behalf.
The CEC’s rejection of Lapid’s petition is not the end of the story. Whereas Israel’s broadcast authority law stipulates that Israel’s Second Broadcast Authority, which regulates commercial broadcasts is an independent authority free of political control or influence, Walla News reported that Lapid instructed the Second Broadcast Authority to comb through Channel 14’s broadcasts to find instances where it may have breached the terms of its license. The report, which no one denied, indicates that Lapid is operating in contravention of law to pave the way for the future revocation of the opposition station’s broadcasting license.
Moreover, Lapid has gone out of his way to discriminate against Channel 14 in areas under his full control. Neither he nor any members of his party have agreed to be interviewed by Channel 14 reporters. Last week when Lapid held a press conference to defend his maritime agreement with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, the Prime Minister’s Bureau barred Channel 14’s reporter from covering the event by holding up the channel’s cameraman for hours at the security checkpoint.
Lapid’s apparent effort to ban a non-supportive media outlet from covering his press conference was not the only way he demonstrated his contempt for democracy at the press conference. Far from it. Lapid presented the deal to approved reporters as a “great achievement.” But the opposite appears to be the case. In the face of Hezbollah’s threat to blow up Israel’s Karish gas platform, Lapid conceded control over Israel’s territorial waters, its sovereign rights to natural resources, including natural gas located in its economic waters, and its economic right to develop natural gas deposits in its economic and sovereign waters to Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. And in exchange, Israel received precisely nothing.
Under Israel’s constitutional law Basic Law – Referendums, to come into force all international agreements that involve the concession of sovereign territory require the approval of two-thirds of the Knesset or must pass in a public referendum. Since Lapid’s deal involves the concession of Israel’s territorial waters, under both the spirit and letter of the law, Lapid is supposed to submit the deal to the Knesset for two-thirds approval. In the event, Lapid tried to avoid even presenting the agreement to the Knesset for review. Although Attorney General Gali Miara Baharav issued an opinion that the agreement doesn’t need to be considered under the Basic Law – Referendums (for reasons that aren’t
clear), she still insisted that the Knesset must approve the deal by a simple majority.
Lapid, for his part, doesn’t care what his attorney general thinks or what the law says. In response to a reporter’s question at the press conference, Lapid explained how he justifies his decision to act in clear contempt of the law and his attorney general and suffice with government approval of his radical deal with Hezbollah’s stand-in government in Beirut.
As he put it, “In light of the opposition’s unrestrained behavior, we have decided not to bring the agreement before the Knesset for a vote.”
That is, given that his political opponents oppose a gas deal that cedes Israeli territory and natural resources to its sworn enemy, under the gun, and just weeks before a national election, Lapid has decided that the Knesset is unworthy of the honor of approving his deal.
Several commentators have noted that Lapid’s statement demonstrated a contempt for his opposition. But the real problem with his statement, and the sentiment it expressed, is that it demonstrated an utter contempt for the most basic institution in Israel’s parliamentary democracy—the parliament, and for democratic norms.
Probably the worst thing about Lapid’s anti-democratic behavior is that his supportive press is letting him get away with it. While the CEC made Yesh Atid pay Channel 14’s legal costs, it didn’t require Lapid’s party to reimburse the television station for the fortune it paid to run a public campaign against Lapid’s efforts to shutter it. Channel 14 felt compelled to launch its campaign because for the most part, it received no support from its counterparts in the progressive, Lapid-supporting media. Israel Hayom, which changed its editorial line to support the Bennett-Lapid government was the only newspaper to express opposition to Lapid’s campaign against Channel 14. And it did it in a house ad, on page 20 of the paper. With the exception of two or three journalists on the right that broadcast for the other stations, Channel 14’s competitors either said nothing, or expressed support for Lapid’s effort to shut it down.
As for the deal with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, most of the media coverage has played down Lapid’s apparent breach of a Basic Law to ram his deal through on the eve of elections. Opposition to the deal has been painted in partisan colors, effecting the sense that the controversy over an agreement which requires Israel to make massive concessions in response to Hezbollah threats is nothing but electioneering.
It is impossible to know how the elections will pan out. There are always last-minute surprises. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc is consistently polling between 59-62 seats, which makes it far from certain that Netanyahu will be able to form a coalition without making a deal with members of Lapid’s left-Arab bloc. But Lapid’s behavior since taking over the caretaker government makes one thing clear. If he forms the next government, the foundations of Israel’s democratic system and the basic freedoms that citizens of a free society expect, including freedom of the press and representative government, will be imperiled.
Caroline Glick is an award-winning columnist and author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East.