Meet Yair Lapid: The New Strongman of Israeli Politics

The key to a new government in Israel is likely to be its latest star: a television news personality whose party won practically as many seats in parliament as Netanyahu's

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Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, leaves his house to speak to the press following his unexpectedly strong showing in elections in Tel Aviv on Jan. 23, 2013

Israeli voters chose one telegenic, articulate media-savvy politician to send a message to another. The recipient was Benjamin Netanyahu, 63, the Prime Minister whose political career was launched in the 1980s by his energetic enunciation of Israel’s position on U.S. television news interviews. Delivering the message was Yair Lapid, 49, a fixture for years on Israel’s leading news channel, whose political career was launched Tuesday night, when his party drew nearly as many votes as Netanyahu’s. It was Lapid’s first-ever political contest.

The message itself appeared to read as follows: the audience Netanyahu had played to in his campaign — the religious ideologues in West Bank settlements and right-wing activists — was not to be confused with Middle Israel, as the heart of the electorate is sometimes called. Lapid ran as a centrist and brought to the campaign a successful broadcast journalist’s talent for listening, processing and repeating the concerns of that audience in terms that seemed to elevate one and all. “What is good for Israel is not in the possession of the right, and nor is it in the possession of the left,” Lapid told ecstatic supporters in Tel Aviv, after exit polls indicated his party had drawn nearly twice the support predicted. “It lies in the possibility of creating here a real and decent center that listens to the other, that knows how to engage in dialogue, that remembers that we are here together not one at the expense of one another but one with the other.”

(MORE: Netanyahu Weakened in Close Israeli Election)

Lapid is handsome, worldly and buff: a bodybuilder who fills out the black T-shirts that have become his trademark. His hair is gelled but he pulls it off, just. An interview at a coffee shop near his Tel Aviv home before the election was what an American would imagine an hour would be like with, say, Peter Jennings. He quoted George Bernard Shaw — and spoke with an insider’s knowledge. “I don’t think Israel’s becoming more religious,” he said. “I think its politics is becoming more religious. There’s a difference.”

There is, but it was not one that seemed terribly apparent at that moment. Another political newcomer, Naftali Bennett, had sucked up all the oxygen in the election, eroding Netanyahu’s support and eclipsing Lapid’s star with a right-wing campaign that was drawing Israeli youth. The Bennett surge married nationalism with a Jewish revival, but the foundation of his Jewish Home party was Israel’s national religious movement, the community that championed the West Bank settlements and had all but taken over Netanyahu’s Likud Party. They accounted for no more than 10% of Israelis, but the other 90% were so much less involved, and so on an array of issues — settlements, most prominently — the religious drive the bus. They come off as the most determined people in Israel.

“Yeah, in the land of ambivalence, those who are determined will flourish,” Lapid acknowledged, adding: “It seems to be true that young people tend to be more extreme.” He blamed the appeal of “definite views. I think the right is more attractive because it’s more radical now.” [Here, he quoted Shaw: “Any man who is not a communist at the age of 20 is a fool.”] “But,” he went on, “there’s this difference between — I don’t want to call them radical, but an ideological group and this huge carrier that is called the country. It moves slowly, and only changes course in a very deliberate manner. But when it moves, it moves.”

“We are all pretty determined people,” Lapid said, referring to Jewish Israelis. “And like Americans tend to look at the place we live in as not only a place but also an idea we live in.”

(MORE: Israel’s Election: What Happened to All the Excitement?)

With the vote tallies due to become official on Thursday, the election shifts to its second phase: the backstage maneuvering to produce a group of parties that will control a workable majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Netanyahu has the privilege of trying and clearly wants both Lapid’s 19 seats and the younger man’s freshly minted credibility. Lapid appears inclined to, announcing on Wednesday night that he would not join an effort by center-left parties to use their combined 60 seats to block Netanyahu from forming a government.

But it won’t be easy. If Lapid was known for one issue, it was “sharing the burden,” shorthand for weaning Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox population from their costly dependence on state subsidies. The ultra-Orthodox have had such a firm alliance with Netanyahu that his previous two coalitions broke up over his refusal to confront them.

What else does Lapid stand for? He advocates renewing peace talks with the Palestinians, not out of hope but because it’s “irresponsible” not to. He advocates for the middle class, whose economic grievances — housing prices, especially — played a big role in the election. The extraordinary protests that brought 500,000 ordinary Israelis to the streets 18 months ago apparently found expression electorally. Besides Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party, Labor also benefited, while Meretz, the most leftist large party, more than doubled its seats.

But it’s not yet clear whether Lapid is moved by conviction or the findings of his pollster, the American Mark Mellman, for whom he led a round of applause as the returns came in. At the vibrant left-wing +972 blog, liberal political analyst Dimi Reider calls him “tofu man,” after the soy food product that absorbs the flavor of whatever it’s immersed in.

(MORE: An Hour with Naftali Bennett: Is the Right-Wing Newcomer the New Face of Israel?)

He is, however, the man of the hour and can surely name his price. The Foreign Minister’s job is open, Avigdor Lieberman having resigned after being indicted for fraud. That ongoing imbroglio did little to help Netanyahu, who at the start of the campaign linked the Likud to Lieberman’s ultranationalist party. Their own U.S. election specialist, Arthur Finkelstein, was widely reported as guaranteeing the alliance would bring the combined slate a whopping 45 seats, up from the 42 the two parties won some four years earlier running separately. Instead, they fell to 31 and might have lost more had Netanyahu not sent panicky text messages late in the day: “The Likud government is in danger. Leave everything and go vote for the Likud now. It is important to ensure the future of the State of Israel.”

The morning papers rubbed in the news, from critics who complained Netanyahu tends to conflate himself with the state. “Bibi plummets to victory,” read a headline in the left-leaning Haaretz. “Strong Prime Minister, Strong Israel” had been Netanyahu’s campaign slogan. Ma’ariv columnist Shalom Yerushalmi called the balloting a deliberate effort to hobble the man. “They wanted him to walk on the crutches they gave him and not run independently in unclear directions.”