Israeli Opposition Leader Battles Dissent in Party Ranks
Ofer Shelah (left) and Yair Lapid. (Knesset)

Israeli Opposition Leader Battles Dissent in Party Ranks

Friend and right-hand man Ofer Shelah lays claim to throne of Yesh Atid, telling chairman Yair Lapid it needs ‘immediate and open’ makeover

Israeli politics, already experiencing turbulent times, witnessed another Shakespearean twist this week after opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, was challenged by his right-hand man and longtime friend for the party’s chairmanship.

Ofer Shelah, a prominent member of Knesset, Israel’s parliament, since February 2013, helped found the party with Lapid. He sent out a tweet Wednesday afternoon saying he had informed Lapid of the “urgent need” for a facelift for Yesh Atid.

“It has to begin with immediate and open primary elections for party chair. I plan to run in that election,” Shelah promised, sending shockwaves through the political sphere.

Former MKs from the party paint a picture of simmering discontent in Yesh Atid, which has never held an internal vote for its leadership or party list since being founded in 2012. They claim that Shelah is only the first to voice it in public.

“In meetings, we all constantly said that the grassroots, the party activists, wanted elections, at least for certain institutions, committees – something!” Haim Jelin, a former Yesh Atid lawmaker, tells The Media Line. “[Lapid’s] centralized approach won’t allow the party to expand, to evolve.”

In meetings, we all constantly said that the grassroots, the party activists, wanted elections, at least for certain institutions, committees – something!

Aliza Lavie, a Yesh Atid MK who chaired several committees in parliament before losing her seat in the 2019 general election, agrees.

“A lot of people inside [the party] said let’s do it. Shelah exposed a conversation that has been going on for a long time,” Lavie reveals in conversation with The Media Line.

“I support holding primary elections wholeheartedly – it’s the basis for every democratic institution,” she says.

Lavie, who was pushed down the party list by Lapid and essentially shown the door, details Yesh Atid’s flawed process.

“When the party was formed, we were told that after the 20th Knesset [which served from 2015 to 2019], a primary for the chairmanship would be held,” she explains. “But then we were told it would be postponed until [after] the 21st Knesset. Then we were told it would be delayed until after the 25th.”

The current Knesset is Israel’s 23rd.

“We were never part of that decision-making,” she laments.

On Thursday, Lapid explained that the issue was under review and the party would decide what was best for its future. Asked what he would do in case he lost a head-to-head run against Shelah, Lapid promised he would remain with the party.

“I have no doubt that a lot of MKs would want primaries to advance themselves,” Dov Lipman, senior manager for community outreach at Honest Reporting and a former Yesh Atid MK, tells The Media Line.

“They’ve worked hard and built up support, and now they want to cash in,” he says. “Yair is very fearful of primaries; he doesn’t want people he can’t control entering his party.”

Yair is very fearful of primaries; he doesn’t want people he can’t control entering his party

Before Yesh Atid’s founding, Lapid was a television journalist, newspaper columnist, author and actor. Shelah, whom he had met years earlier when both worked as reporters for the Maariv newspaper, helped him establish, develop and navigate the party.

“Ofer was closest to Yair; he was one of the founders of the party, a key cog in it,” Lipman notes, adding: “I don’t see them getting back to where they were after this.”

Despite what was a close personal bond, Lapid and Shelah have never seen eye to eye on certain issues.

Shelah is considered more left-leaning on the Palestinian question and a vocal proponent of a more assertive approach toward peace talks. In the past year, he pushed hard for Blue and White, a centrist list in which Yesh Atid was the strongest member, to cooperate fully with the mostly Arab Joint List in parliament, explaining that it was the only way to ensure a majority to maneuver Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu out of office.

“The argument is an ideological one,” says Lavie. “Shelah is pulling to his direction, more to the left. This is a real debate.”

Shelah is pulling to his direction, more to the left. This is a real debate

Some in Yesh Atid believe Shelah might be planning to form a new party, with himself at the helm, to the left of Lapid.

“I don’t see Yair [holding a primary] now. I think it may cause a split,” Lipman says. “I’ve… heard from people inside the party that Ofer is contemplating forming a new party before the next [general] election.”

The three interviewees – and what appears to be most of Yesh Atid’s 14 current MKs – agree that primaries are needed to refresh the party and bring in new blood. They also believe that Lapid simply will not allow it, at least for the time being.

“It’s an emotional issue. He saw what happened to his father and doesn’t want to repeat it,” explains Jelin.

It’s an emotional issue. He saw what happened to his father and doesn’t want to repeat it

The late Tommy Lapid led his own party, the centrist Shinui, in the early 2000s. After years of success at the helm, he was forced to hold an internal election. Following results that were not to his liking, he resigned, and the party quickly disappeared.

“He fears his life’s work will go down the tubes,” says Jelin, referring to the younger Lapid. “But you can’t reach the prime minister’s office with a closed party. You have to open your doors, connect the public to the party.”

The ex-MK believes the party leader should take that risk.

“Whether or not he wins personally, the party will win,” Jelin believes. “It’s bigger than him. When he understands that, he will truly succeed.”

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