(Bloomberg) -- Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister, is running out of “juice” and will probably be replaced early next year, says former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, his closest rival.
Polls show Lapid’s opposition Yesh Atid party running neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s Likud if elections were held today. The former television talk-show host served for almost two years as Netanyahu’s finance minister until his firing in December 2014 led to the collapse of the previous government. That precipitated new elections that returned Netanyahu to power with a more conservative coalition.
Now Lapid predicts the government will last just another few months. While he wouldn’t comment on the various investigations into the prime minister -- who’s accused of receiving gifts from foreign tycoons and conspiring to help a newspaper publisher in exchange for favorable coverage -- Lapid says he expects the current government to last only through the end of the year. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
“I don’t see a lot of juice in this government,” Lapid, 53, said in an interview Monday at his parliamentary office in Jerusalem. “Our assumption is the government will hold until the end of the year, and not longer.”
Lapid also said he’s encouraged by U.S. President Donald Trump’s early efforts to resurrect peace negotiations with the Palestinians -- even if he’s not sure about the odds of success. Trump arrives next week on his first foreign trip as president in a tour that will also take him to meet Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Pope Francis at the Vatican.
The fact that Trump “wants to be proactive, that after a long time when nothing happens somebody’s trying to push some sort of an envelope, is a good sign,” Lapid said. “Not doing anything is also a choice -- and usually a bad one.”
The son of a Holocaust survivor who became one of Israel’s most aggressive journalists and a populist cabinet minister, Lapid has made no secret of his aspirations to lead the country. On his wall, not far from a poster of Muhammad Ali -- Lapid is an amateur boxer who works out every day but Sunday -- are photographs of two iconic Israeli prime ministers who were ideological opposites. Lapid says he can fill the space in the center between Labor Party stalwart David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, who founded the conservative Likud Party.
Unlike many Israeli leadership contenders, Lapid doesn’t have a distinguished military record to fall back on: He was a correspondent for the army’s weekly magazine, Bamahane. Since entering the opposition, though, he has sought to position himself as a tough-minded centrist, one who’s interested in reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians but won’t negotiate everything away to do so.
Trump has given mixed signals about the steps he thinks are needed to achieve Middle East peace. During a news conference with Netanyahu in February, Trump said he would be willing to support a one-state or two-state solution, whatever “both parties like.” Either way, he’s said, he’s a leader who can finally get a peace deal done.
Not So Tough
Following a May 3 meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Trump said a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians “is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
Lapid said in the interview the new president should follow through on his campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in recognition of Israel’s claim to the city. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War, to be their future capital, and have threatened violence if the U.S. moves its embassy.
“No one would ask America to give up half of Washington, the French to give up half of Paris. So we’re not going to give anything in Jerusalem, and this is where the embassy should be,” Lapid said. “There might be upheaval for a day or two, but neither Israel nor the United States is making policy according to threats.”
While the Trump administration is still getting its bearings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, attorney David Friedman, presented his credentials Tuesday -- the president has appeared to walk back some of his most pro-Israel campaign statements. The embassy move, in particular, appears to be a much lower priority. During their joint news conference, Trump gently chided Netanyahu to “hold back” on settlement construction.
Yet even that was a change from the Obama administration, which fiercely criticized all Israeli settlement building, including in Jerusalem and in large settlement blocs that Israel expects to keep in any peace agreement. In a way, Lapid said, it hearkens back to understandings between President George W. Bush and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, codified in a 2004 exchange of letters that recognized facts on the ground Israel had established in the decades since 1967.
Under Trump, “we see something less ideological, a more practical approach to the conflict. Maybe that’s a good thing,” Lapid said. “Ninety-five percent of the problems on Earth are practical problems, and need practical solutions.”