When Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) stunned political observers in Israel by winning a totally unpredicted 19 Knesset seats in the January 22 national elections – and thereby becoming the second-largest party in the Israeli legislative body – the Israeli electorate as a whole was forced to sit up and take notice of the party’s charismatic – and avowedly secular – leader, Yair Lapid.
A former television broadcaster who only entered politics one year ago, the 49-year-old Lapid has fashioned a political movement that, while self-identified as “centrist,” unambiguously represents the left-leaning sentiments of a wide segment of the Jewish state’s population. In particular, Lapid – the son of the late Israeli politician Tommy Lapid, who gained fame for his anti-Chareidi philosophy – espouses beliefs that are anathema to both the country’s Chareidim and its politically rightwing citizens. These “incendiary” beliefs are: a) every able-bodied Israeli, including those who are fervently Orthodox and tend to devote the majority of their time to Torah study, should be subject to the military draft and strongly encouraged to seek full-time employment; and b) presently idled negotiations with the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria should be pursued full-force, with the intent of granting them a fully independent state. In general, it is safe to say that Yair Lapid represents those Israelis who have becoming increasingly concerned that Israel has been morphing into a theocratic and ultranationalist state.
On a personal and professional level, Lapid comes across as urbane and sophisticated, the ideal secular Israeli. The child of a Holocaust survivor who utilized his persistence and polished communications skills to become a popular television personality, he made a name for himself through a variety of media-related endeavors, including newspaper columnist, book and script writer, song composer and movie actor.
“Yair is a very ambitious, well-read, worldly and charming man,” former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opined, “and my impression is that he fits in exactly to the desire of many Israelis to see in the centre stage of politics younger guys who look, talk and behave in a different way from the present typical representatives they watch every day on TV.”
The sudden ascension of Yesh Atid to the political stratosphere has given Lapid a new level of power that the prime minister must reckon with. While Benjamin Netanyahu still holds on to his position as the country’s leader and will be the head of the government’s next ruling coalition, he will have to offer the new political star a senior role. Moreover, a just-conducted survey has revealed that 40 percent of Israelis would like to see Lapid elected as prime minister in four years. If the coming months witness Netanyahu having difficulty forming a majority or getting a budget passed, Lapid’s rise to the very top may be significantly expedited.
On one hand, Lapid’s newfound popularity signifies a societal reprimand by Israel’s secular and cosmopolitan residents to Jerusalem’s Chareidim and the country’s right-wing settlers, who are often perceived as having great influence on government decisions regarding such emotional issues as army service and territorial oversight. “The citizens of Israel today said no to the politics of fear and hatred,” Lapid said in his victory speech. “They said no to extremists and they said no to anti-democratic behavior.”
On the other hand, though, many in Israel consider the Yesh Atid leader to be a political novice who will have to fight his way through the often-contentious arena of Israeli politics. “He did well because he didn’t say much,” Shlomo Avineri, professor of politics at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, wryly noted.
Political leaders in Israel who have presented themselves as a “centrist” alternative to the classic paradigms of rightwing Likud and leftwing Labor have generally slipped from power after an interlude in the spotlight. These include the late Tommy Lapid, whose stridently secular Shinui party disappeared after being part of Ariel Sharon’s coalition government back in the 2000’s.
Some observers remain unimpressed with the long-term prospects of a Lapid reign, as they feel his rise is actually part of a worldwide trend that convinces celebrities to believe they can be heavyweights on the political scene. “The whole election was like a reality show,” commented Lior Averbach, media correspondent for Globes, the Israeli financial newspaper. “I’m not sure everybody who voted for Yair Lapid knew exactly what he stands for, but they liked the personality.”
Born in Tel Aviv in 1963, Yair Lapid clearly absorbed the influences of his journalist and politician father Tommy and his mother Shulamit, a well-known writer. While in the Israeli army, Yair wrote articles for the IDF magazine, which served as good preparation for his subsequent editorial position at Maariv.
Taking advantage of his handsome appearance, Lapid moved into television broadcasting, first appearing as a talk show host on cable and then becoming the newscaster on the country’s most popular station, Channel Two. He has additionally published seven books and written a drama series called “War Room” that was aired on Channel 2 in 2004. The charismatic Lapid’s popularity increased to the point where, in 2005, he was voted the 36th-greatest Israeli of all time in a poll by the Israeli news website Ynet. Married for the second time, Lapid is the father of two sons, and one daughter, whom he has publicly acknowledged as autistic.
With his newly formed Yesh Atid party, Lapid carved out a niche that set him clearly apart from Netanyahu. In contrast with the prime minister’s focus on security issues, Lapid cast a spotlight on local issues – exorbitant housing costs, a bloated national government, and the reportedly growing sense of resentment against the Chareidim for their reduced participation in the military and the work force.
In the immediate aftermath of the elections, Lapid was the first “player” to be called for consultation by Netanyahu. According to political analysts, he is in a position to wield some strong influence over forthcoming government policy, and he will have to particularly defend his emphatic stance on his core issues of compulsory army service for all and renewed peace talks with the Palestinians.
Regarding the first of those two issues, Lapid has insisted that he will not condescend to a rightwing government in thrall to the religious parties. Even so, he is sounding a more flexible note than his late father did. And his supporters sincerely believe he can succeed where Tommy Lapid did not. “Yair sees himself as the guy who will do what his father wanted to, but the next generation,” says Ben Caspit, a columnist and broadcaster who is a former colleague of Yair Lapid. “He’s like the iPhone 5 – he’s a lot more sophisticated.”
While he is in a position to assume any Cabinet role he wants, Lapid is considered likely to select either Foreign Minister or Finance Minister. He is also said to be open to heading the Interior, or Construction and Housing minsistries.
In any case, there is no question that Lapid’s biggest challenge will be overcoming the strong opposition of the Chareidi parties. United Torah Judaism has stated that it will not join Yesh Atid in a coalition government. In fact, incoming UTJ member Meir Porush has warned that hundreds of thousands of fervently Orthodox citizens are willing to “sanctify G-d’s name” by fighting the government’s potentially drastic directives.