Charismatic Leader Helps Israel Turn Toward the Center
Oliver Weiken/European Pressphoto Agency
By ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: January 22, 2013 77 Comments
RAMAT GAN, Israel — With his good looks and suave manner, Yair Lapid had long been a celebrity and symbol of success here, building a strong following as a prominent journalist and the host of a popular television show.
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But by the time the polls closed here Tuesday, it was clear that Mr. Lapid had reinvented himself as one of the most powerful political leaders in the country, leveraging his celebrity and a populist message that resonated.
Mr. Lapid, 49, was the surprise of the Israeli election. His party placed second, when polls said it would come in fourth. He had predicted that he would do better with his outreach to the middle class and his emphasis on social justice and the rising inequalities in society. He was right. His centrist Yesh Atid Party won 19 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, according to preliminary results, positioning Mr. Lapid as the chief power broker in the formation of the next governing coalition.
Mr. Lapid’s stronghold seems to have been the Tel Aviv area, with preliminary results showing he garnered about a quarter of the votes cast here in Ramat Gan and similar suburbs of Israel’s largely secular metropolis.
Though little known abroad, for many here, in this generation, Mr. Lapid became the quintessential Israeli.
His father was a Holocaust survivor who went on to serve as justice minister. His mother is a well-known novelist. A year ago, when Mr. Lapid decided to quit television and enter politics, he set himself the mission of representing the country’s struggling middle class, a long-neglected constituency. He presented a common appeal, refreshing for an Israeli politician. As the author of a widely read column in the weekend supplement of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, he wrote a column under a title that became his catchphrase: “Where’s the money?”
He wrote: “This is the big question asked by Israel’s middle class, the same sector on whose behalf I am going into politics. Where’s the money? Why is it that the productive sector, which pays taxes, fulfills its obligations, performs reserve duty and carries the entire country on its back, doesn’t see the money?”
Mr. Lapid harnessed the frustration of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who took to the streets in the social-justice protests of the summer of 2011. When he founded Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) the next spring, he adopted and sharpened the popular demands for a more equal sharing of the burden, meaning an end to automatic military exemptions for thousands of ultra-Orthodox students who opt for full-time Torah study, as well as demands for better public education and an end to rising taxes that choke the middle class.
At times, when his supporters showed up at the rallies clad in Yesh Atid T-shirts and holding banners, Mr. Lapid was accused of trying to hijack the protests that grew up spontaneously from the grass-roots of society.
But when the polls indicated that Yesh Atid would garner about a dozen seats in the next Parliament, Mr. Lapid insisted that it would win 20 or more and that he could best translate the simmering anger of working, middle Israel into political power.
On the peace process with the Palestinians, Mr. Lapid has also stuck to the middle ground, presenting safe positions within the consensus: he says that he favors negotiations for a Palestinian state while retaining the large West Bank settlement blocs under Israeli control, and he opposes any division of Jerusalem.
And while his father was known for staunch secularism — his politics based on an abrasive, antireligious platform — Mr. Lapid is more diverse and inclusive. Among Yesh Atid’s top members are Shai Piron, a modern Orthodox rabbi and educator; Yaakov Perry, a former chief of Israel’s internal security service; Yael Garman, the mayor of Herzliya; Ofer Shelah, a former journalist; Mickey Levy, a former Jerusalem police chief; and Dov Lipman, an American-born ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has worked to ease tensions between divided sectors of Israeli society.
After the preliminary election results Tuesday night, Mr. Lipman, speaking at Mr. Lapid’s event in Tel Aviv, said that he had joined Yesh Atid because he believed in the party. “I hope to change things for the better,” he said. “For 30 years this country has been about left versus right. Now we want to change things on the inside: national service, education, housing, a middle class that cannot finish the month.”
Mr. Lapid, a married father of three, is an amateur boxer and is known for his casual chic black clothing. Born in Tel Aviv to Yosef Lapid, known as Tommy, a Holocaust survivor of Hungarian descent who came to Israel in 1948, and Shulamit Lapid, a well-known author, he began his career as a print journalist.
He then became a popular talk show host and anchored Channel 2’s Friday evening news.
After his father died in 2008, at 77, Mr. Lapid wrote “Memories After My Death,” the story of his father’s life from his days in the ghetto of Budapest through to his period as minister of justice in Ariel Sharon’s government.
On Tuesday, Channel 2 aired a pretaped interview with Mr. Lapid. Speaking of his father, Mr. Lapid said, “Four days before he died he told me — and he was a dramatic man, he loved great dramatic gestures — he said to me, ‘Yairi, I am leaving for you a family and a state.’ ”
In another telling exchange a few years ago, when Mr. Lapid interviewed his father on television, he asked a question he asked of all his interviewees: “What is Israeli in your view?”
His father replied, “You.”