Yair Lapid: An Interview with Israel’s New Power Broker

TIME sat down with the celebrity anchor turned politician in December for a wide-ranging interview. Excerpts from that session.

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Oded Balilty / AP

Yair Lapid, popular former TV anchorman and head of the new centrist party Yesh Atid, at his house in Tel Aviv, Jan. 16, 2013.

Yair Lapid is the Israeli anchorman and columnist who stunned Israel’s political world by finishing second in Jan. 22 balloting, nearly tying the total for Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu’s Likud Party (which ran with another right-wing party on the ballot.)  A chastened Netanyahu is now trying to form a coalition government with a variety of parties, but he reached out first and most eagerly to Lapid, and his freshly minted credibility.  My profile of  the new star of Israeli politics, “Man in the Middle,” is in the new print edition of TIME (available to subscribers here).  We met on Dec. 30 in a coffee shop in Ramat Aviv, an upscale suburb north of Tel Aviv known for its luxury high rises.  At the time, the momentum appeared to be moving away from the party Lapid, 49, had formed, Yesh Atid, which means “There Is a Future.”

Israel’s right wing was surging, energized by a former hi-tech success story and onetime commando named Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party. Lapid acknowledged the headwind, but argued – presciently, as it turned out – that the silent, secular bastion of Middle Israel had not yet been heard from, in a campaign driven largely by debates between parties representing competing sectors of Israel’s diverse Jewish population, never mind the one in five citizens who are Arab.    He also spoke at length about why Israelis talk so much less about the issue that defines the region for the outside world — the Palestinian question.


Lapid:  The only group of people who are not represented are the majority.  Which is interesting. All kinds of interest groups – ultra-Orthodox, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, Sephardi, settlers, right, far right, far-far-far-right, and even far left – are well represented, either in the coalition or the opposition.  And the only group of people who are not being represented are the Israeli middle class, good old-fashioned taxpayers, who’s been to the army, who’s served in reserves for 25 years, the workhorse who is carrying everyone else around.   We are trying to create a voice for those. And you know what? Some of them will come to us and in other arenas, what we will do is influence other parties at least to talking about middle class problems: tax rate, housing, education – all those things that the Time magazine readers are not interested in because all they want to talk about is the conflict and what’s going to happen next.

(MORE: Meet Yair Lapid: The New Strongman of Israeli Politics)

TIME: Exactly. No one here wants to talk about the peace process. They’re well past that. Talk about that disconnect.
Lapid: Israelis convinced themselves that there is no use in talking to the Palestinians because they’re not to be trusted. I think they’re wrong. I think the Palestinians are not to be trusted and this exactly why we should talk to them.  Because you make peace with foes not with friends…. Interestingly enough, all polls show the mass majority of Israelis say the two-state solution is the only game in town, but is quite comfortable with the fact that nothing happens. I myself think this is irresponsible. I think we don’t want to make the mistake the Israeli left makes time and time again of telling up front what it is they’re willing to give up.  But we have to go back to the negotaitions table.

In a sincere way or because that is what the world sort of expects?
Lapid: No, in a sincere way. You know my father didn’t come here from the ghetto in order to live in a country that is half Arab, half Jewish. He came here to live in a Jewish state. And we have 3.3 million Palestinians now between the sea and the eastern border of Israel. If we don’t do something about it, her generation [nods toward a 15-year-old girl at our table] is going to spend her time with six or seven or eight million Palestinians.  So doing nothing about it is shortsighted.  Unbelievably enough I do believe Netanyahu believes the same, but he does not have the coalition, and right now not even the party to support him. So maybe in a few weeks one of my jobs will be to make sure he has enough fingers to vote about this, from within the coalition or from opposition, same thing.

The Likud list, and this surge by Naftali Bennett, has that helped you look more moderate by comparison?
Lapid: There is one thing that is crucial. Right now we have with the Palestinians a national dispute. But the point of no return is the moment this has become a religious dispute. Jews versus Muslims. Not yet. With Hamas it’s a religious dispute. But not yet with Fatah. With the Palestinian authority we have a national dispute. And we should keep it this way, because a national dispute we can solve.  When it gets into my God is better than yours, then it becomes an everlasting conflict.

Everyone says Israel’s becoming more religious, too.
Lapid: What I’m saying: I don’t think Israel’s becoming more religious. I think Israel’s politics is becoming more religious. There’s a difference. Definitely. We see by the way more and more religious people. My second in command in my party is a rabbi who lives in a settlement and talks about a two-state solution. There is within the religious population in Israel many different voices, some if not most, more moderate than the political representatives.

(MORE: Behind the Story: TIME’s Karl Vick Discusses Israel’s Upcoming Elections)

Anywhere you’re around settlers…seeing the determination,..a lot of people are not finding politics very fascinating, but these guys are driving the bus because nobody else is interested. It seems to be happening this election.
Lapid: Yeah maybe so but it’s always a mistake to question the determination of the majority of Israelis. We are all pretty determined people.  And like Americans we tend to think abou the place we live in not only as a place but also as an idea. And we’re pretty eager to make sure this idea will last. So I don’t think – I know the whole textbook saying this cannot happen without civil war and so on and so forth. There is no civil war between 93% of the population and 7 percent of the population. It does not work like this.  The thing that makes them flourish is the fact that the country does not know where it’s heading.

Right. It seems fairly clear that both sides, the Palestinians and the Israelis are sort of ambivalent.
Lapid: Right. And in the land of the ambivalent, those who are determined will flourish. So, yes.  But this is the difference between, I don’t know if radical group is the right term, but an ideological group and this huge carrier that is called the country, that moves slower, that makes decisions in a very different manner, but when it moves, it moves. And you know what?  There’s been polling forever and ever, and the majority of Israelis understand that aside from the big blocs of settlements, Gush Etzion, Maale Adiumim and Ariel, we will withdraw eventually.

But in that otherwise disengaged population there seem to be indications that young people are moving more to the right. You went to the center, not center-left.
Lapid: Well it seems to be true that young people seem to be more extreme. And you know definite views are more attractive to them… Young settlers, for better or for worse, it’s a radical movement, and radical movements are interesting, and fascinating, create some quality of enthusiasm that doesn’t exist. But this passes, this is the old George Bernard Shaw that says if you’re not a communist at 17 you’re heartless, and if you’re still a communist when you’re 35 you’re brainless.

We’re talking about an extreme in those guys, but in general the national religious are the new kibbutzim.
Lapid: In a way.

They want to run the country, they care the most, and they’ve got a takeover mission.
Lapid: Yes what happens with them is interesting. When they’re becoming an establishment – they’ve become an establishment, they are the new officers, they are the new business people, and so on and so forth – when you become an establishment it influences you.  They felt that they’re going to bring in their values into the establishment by becoming establishment, but when they became establishment, the value sof the establishment in a way influenced them as well.  When you go around, places like Eli, they have a whole new age kind of culture. You have all these physio-therapists, and make their own wine. When you have three children and four children, you become more moderate.

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

It’s both this incredibly fractious society at war with itself, and one of the most unified in the world, maybe the most.
Lapid: In ways.  In ways and at moments. What unifies us is forces in the outside. And the fact that we understand the complexity of what’s going on.  If we feel we’re being misjudged by the world – mostly by the Europeans, by the way. you know I was talking with the BBC the other day, they said something about the two-state solution and I said, yeah, why didn’t you give back Ireland 100 years ago?  People tend to feel that their problems are complex and other people’s problems are very simple to solve. It’s never the case.

What were the close questions in trying to define what you’re run on?  Maybe not the close ones, maybe just in general.
Lapid: Okay, so this will be what we call equality of burden, which is some sort of a code name that we expect the ultra-orthodox to serve in the army or in civil service and then get themselves employed into the labor market.  We have a problem here, again, very boring for Time magazine, but if you think about a country like Switzerland, which is approximately the size of Israel, it’s 7 and a half million people, so 83 percent of people within the working age are working, in Israel only 66.2 percent. So we think the equality of burden is necessary, and then there is housing and education and all this stuff.

What we’re trying to promote is the comeback of the values that created this country, which is the understanding that we understand a common faith –within, by the way, a hostile world – and we have to ask ourselves do we ant to fractionalize our world even more, or do we want to unite, not only in days of war but otherwise.  You know, nations tend to, there is a thin, very transparent wire encircling the country, holding us together, and we are on the verge of tearing it apart.  So what we’re trying is to re-create an Israeli dialogue, which by the way will make us more sympathetic to the world.  I was at the last AIPAC convention. And every year AIPAC has a slogan, and this year it was: Shared Values.  And you’re going through a huge hall, and you see 2,200 times, shared values, shared values, and after the first couple of hundred times, you ask yourself, what are they afraid of? I mean, 20 years ago they wouldn’t put up a sign that says Shared Values because everybody knows we shared the same values.

Bibi was the first of this new generation of media-genic politicians.  The giants are all gone, right? There are two journalists running.
Lapid: There is a sort of vacuum within Israeli leadership and Netanyahu is enjoying this, because all the other candidates are  a bit too young.  There is the saying, it depends what kind of volume [book] you have. If you have an American volume of aphorisms, you say that Bill Clinton said once, everybody wants change, nobody wants to be changed. If you’re holding the European volume, it’ll be Doestoyevsky, because it turns out he said it before. Its understandable. A lot of people tend to prefer their familiar bad to whatever’s unfamiliar. It will pass. We have a saying in my party, if you do not succeed in convincing, it’s okay, if you don’t vote for us this time around you’ll vote for us next time around. I’m a patient player.

(MORE: Netanyahu Weakened in Close Israeli Election)

Half a million people went out in demostrations. They’re going to vote for whom?
Lapid: Well I think I’m splitting them with Labor.  Labor, [Tzipi] Livni. These are the people right now said to themselves, ‘Okay, so this cannot be changed outside the political arena, we’re going to move  our demonstration inside.’ These are the people we’re fighting over in  a way.  I think there is a hard 50% who will vote security no matter what. The other half is the half we’re talking about… These boundaries between right and left are so artificial, they can be convinced otherwise…These are part of the things that are hard in the campaign, but also part of the reasons I went into politics, because I want to have a more serious dialogue, and I have a great believe in the ability of Israeli society to create such a dialogue.  It will take time. But I think it’s an existential thing for us to be able to create such dialogue. And this is not naivete. I spent a lifetime in media exploring the Israeli dialogue, and you have to go through other dimensions. You have to remember that settlements are really costly. The fact that the ultra-orthodox are not going into the army has an impact on your daily life. The fact that we are not there yet as a society, and the politics of fear and hatred are running our lives is resulting in the demolition of the Israeli middle class. You have to explain this. And it’s always harder to run an educational campaign, but it’s not impossible. The first Clinton campaign was an educational campaign….

I’ve been doing this for a year now, which is a long campaign by Israeli standards. And it’s been an outside Tel Aviv campaign mostly.  And you know what? It’s a known phenomenon that I have always the crowded houses in Israel. Even people who will not vote for me, I have the most crowded houses. I  spoke every night to 200 300 400 people,  whereas the majority of Israeli politicians cannot gather 12 people.

You’re a celebrity.
Lapid: Aside from that, it’s a mouth to mouth thing. In Israel all campaigns are mouth to mouth: you have to go and listen to this guy because he’s talking about things that matter.

Where are the swing voters or geographies? Where are these things decided?
Lapid: Young people. Nobody knows how to poll them. In Israel, unlike the United States, they didn’t move the polling from households to cellular. My American strategist is Mark Mellman, pollster of the year in 2011 and 2012  He was horrified by the way polling is done here. So young people are going to be very interesting and crucial to every campaign. There’s always the big factor of the last week here.  That happens in the states too But here since we’re in a multiparty system its’ always more dramatic. The last week or ten days…. Something’s going to happen, I don’t know what. I wish I knew what.