Who is Yair Lapid?

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The news out of Israel throughout election day — now confirmed by preliminary exit polling — is that Yair Lapid (pictured above) and his new party Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’) have performed significantly better than expected, making it the second-largest party in the Knesset (הכנסת), Israeli’s unicameral parliament.ISrel Flag Icon

As I wrote yesterday, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have some difficult choices to make in determining how to cobble together a majority coalition of at least 61 members of the Knesset — Lapid is now certain to be a major factor in Netanyahu’s negotiations.

So it’s worth taking a little time to focus on what Lapid has apparently accomplished and what he’s focused on in the campaign.

Lapid entered politics in Israel only in January 2012, and amid rumors that Netanyahu would call snap elections in April 2012, hastily named his party ‘Yesh Atid.’  But he’s long been a well-known figure in Israeli public life, first as a well-regarded columnist in the 1990s and then as a television anchor and talk-show host. 

He’s also pretty easy on the eyes.

On the campaign trail, he’s gone out of his way to describe Yesh Atid as a center-center party:

Ideally, Yair Lapid’s self-described “Center-Center” party should present the perfect balance between the Right and Left blocs that this country needs so desperately. The danger though, is that Yesh Atid is just another example of a neither-here-nor-there party that is doomed to fail like so many centrist platforms before it.

For now, Netanyahu must realize that it means that Lapid would be more likely than Labor (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) or Meretz (מרצ, ‘Energy’) to support planned budget cuts, in light of a growing budget deficit (over 4% in 2012).  That will be good news for Netanyahu regardless of whether Yesh Atid joins the next government.

In many ways, Yesh Atid has replaced Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’), the centrist party that Ariel Sharon founded and that is projected to have lost all 28 of the seats it held in the prior Knesset.

Notably, Lapid’s father, Tommy Lapid, who died in 2008, was also a journalist who also entered politics later in life — he became party chair of the secular, liberal Shinui (שינוי, ‘Change’) Party in 1999 and won a seat in the Knesset and six seats.

In the 2003 elections, however — a decade ago — Tommy Lapid’s Shinui broke through with 15 seats, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset and a victory, like today’s victory for Yesh Atid, for secular Israel over the ultraorthodox parties.  After that election, Tommy Lapid joined the government of Ariel Sharon as deputy prime minister and minister of justice, although Tommy Lapid and Shinui ultimately left the government in 2004 over disputes with the more conservative ultraorthodox members of Sharon’s coalition.  As the 2006 elections approached, infighting within the party led to Shinui’s loss of all 15 seats, however.

In 2012 and 2013, his son Yair Lapid has also brought a secular centrist sensibility to the campaign trail:

Lapid is perceived as the “least left” in the political bloc that extends from Netanyahu to Hanin Zuabi. He has no personal or ideological feuds with the prime minister, as do most of the other candidates. A two-digit number of seats could enable him to hook up with Netanyahu as a replacement for Shas, and reduce the price the Likud would have to pay the Haredim.

Lapid is touting himself as a candidate for education minister, and even now his background as a volunteer civics teacher stands out. He could even learn a thing or two from the outgoing minister about how to exploit the ministry for self-advancement: Gideon Sa’ar bought the silence of the teachers’ unions that had made life hell for his predecessors, and focused on politicizing the system and making headlines, which turned him into the right’s chief ideologue and the winner of the Likud primary.

Given his apparent success today, Lapid may want to hold out for a position bigger than just education minister.  

Indeed, Jeffrey Goldberg over at The Atlantic is already speculating about how Lapid’s presence in a Netanyahu-led government would be received:

Biggest question on my mind: Will Obama and Yair Lapid have chemistry?

Amir Mizroch has gone even farther, calling Lapid ‘Israel’s Obama‘:

Like US President Barack Obama when he ran for his first term, Lapid is someone who is banking on a message of change; change in the political system, change in the nation’s fiscal and social priorities, change in the education system, change to the rules of national burden: he promises that he will work for seismic changes to the national fabric of Israeli society: the ultra-Orthodox must serve in the army or national service and they must join the workforce etc.

But like Obama, Lapid may be creating too many expectations, and might suffer from this down the line when he’s faced with the harsh realities of the Israeli political system, and the expected economic downturn and massive budget cuts the next government will have to implement….

Like Obama’s first campaign, Lapid crowd-sourced his campaign, mostly on the Internet. His Facebook friends asked him questions, and he sat all night and answered them. I followed one of his staffer’s Instagram account, and I can tell you that Lapid held at least one parlor meeting every day somewhere in the country. Every day.

But there’s a game theory quality to the negotiations ahead — if Lapid joins a Netanyahu-led coalition, he’ll relinquish the role of chief opposition leader to Shelly Yacimovich, the more leftist leader of the longtime Labor Party, ceding to Yacimovich the mantle of change for the next elections.

Lapid need look no farther than his own father’s example to see the perils that come with joining a governing coalition — holding Yesh Atid together after joining Netanyahu’s government may prove a difficult challenge.

If the two major ultraorthodox parties, Shas (ש״ס) and United Torah Judaism (יהדות התורה המאוחדת) continue to participate in government with Netanyahu as they did in the prior Knesset, they would bring a cumulative 18 seats, according to projections.  But Lapid has been perhaps the loudest critic of the Tal Law and negotiations earlier this year over exemptions for haredi students — ultraorthodox students of Judaism — from the obligation to serve two years in the Israeli Defense Forces.

If exemptions for haredim prove to become a major issue in the next Knesset (and they probably will), you could see Lapid pulling his party’s support from a Netanyahu coalition in opposition to the ultraorthodox — again, just like his father in 2004.

For now, however, Lapid will bask in the glory of an electoral triumph that’s at least three-fold:

First, he’ll control more seats than any other party in the Knesset, except for Netanyahu’s own ‘Likud Beiteinu’ bloc — and maybe eve more than Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎, ‘The Consolidation’), taken as a single party without its electoral partner, the more nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו‎, ‘Israel is Our Home’), led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Secondly, he’ll have ‘won’ the internal wrangling among at least five center-left parties in Israel, winning more seats than even Labor, which had been projected to finish in second place (with 17 seats, however, Labor will have improved its standing in the Knesset by at least four seats).

Finally, he’ll have won a larger victory than even his father’s 2003 surge.

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