Israeli Television Star Seeks to Woo Political Center

Yesh Atid Party Leader Yair Lapid
Yair Lapid, founder and leader of the Yesh Atid party. Photographer: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

In a meeting room at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yair Lapid is trying to convince several hundred students to vote for his Yesh Atid party in Israel’s general election on Jan. 22

“I have bad news for you -- none of you will be getting apartments,” the 49-year-old Lapid says, striking a sore point in a country where housing has become a hot-button issue after prices rose about 20 percent since 2010. “None of you will get an apartment unless you have a rich uncle who passed away during the last few weeks.”

While he’s new to politics, Lapid’s bodybuilder’s physique clad in trademark black jacket-and t-shirt, and his carefully coiffed salt-and-pepper hair, are already familiar sights after more than a decade spent hosting a talk-show and current affairs program on television’s Channel Two. He’s now trying to use that celebrity for Yesh Atid by appealing primarily to middle-class voters with centrist views, a constituency once courted by his late father Tommy Lapid’s Shinui party.

A poll in the Maariv daily on Dec. 14 had the party gaining eight seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament, well behind the 38-seat estimate for front-runner Likud-Beitenu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s joint list with former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. Yesh Atid may still play an important role in forming the next government, with analysts seeing Lapid as a more likely coalition partner for Netanyahu than such other center-left party leaders as Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich or Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni.

‘Likely Candidate’

“Yachimovich and Livni probably have too many members in their parties opposed to joining a Netanyahu-led government,” says Avraham Diskin, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Netanyahu will want at least one center-left faction in his coalition to reduce the pressures he’ll face from the far-Right Jewish Home party and the religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and Lapid’s party is the most likely candidate.”

While Lapid tells his Hebrew University audience that this month’s government decisions to build more homes in east Jerusalem on land claimed by Palestinians is flawed, he focuses more on the timing than the substance. The entire city must remain under Israeli sovereignty in any final peace agreement he says, despite the Palestinian insistence that east Jerusalem should be the capital of their state.

Domestic Policies

Yesh Atid’s platform focuses on domestic issues, advocating governmental and educational reforms, housing grants for young couples, increased assistance for small businesses and steps to enlarge the military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews who currently receive draft exemptions.

Lapid’s emphasis on the ultra-Orthodox touches on the issue that brought political success to his late father. Tommy Lapid, who died in 2008, was also a journalist and broadcaster, whose now-defunct Shinui won 15 seats in the 2003 election. Before imploding amid internal conflicts, Shinui supported the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in reducing child allowances for large ultra-Orthodox families, and its evacuation of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip.

Yesh Atid is trying to fill the centrist gap left by Shinui’s absence, with a parliamentary list that, except for Herzlyia mayor Yael German and Dimona mayor Meir Cohen, is drawn largely from outside the political sphere. Candidates include Jacob Perry, former head of the Israeli security service, Shin Bet, and ex-chief executive officer of Cellcom Israel Ltd., Mickey Levy, the former Jerusalem police chief, and journalist Ofer Shelach.

Newspaper Attacks

Lapid has to overcome criticism from newspapers that he’s a celebrity entering politics largely as an attempt to mimic his father’s past. The Haaretz daily dubbed him the “prom king politician,” a “former teenage heart-throb with daddy issues” and “the ultimate personification of a political sphere obsessed with stardom.”

Lapid represents “a lack of ideological compass, a blurring of ethical boundaries and populism as a worldview,” said Zehava Gal-On, leader of the leftist Meretz faction.

Lapid touts his lack of political experience as a plus, comparing himself to Barack Obama as a candidate facing initial doubts on his qualifications for the national stage. “If I was just looking for a platform, all I can say is I gave up a more comfortable platform; if I just was looking for a salary, I gave up a bigger salary,” he tells the students.

That pitch convinced Liat Helbetz, 23, who distributed Yesh Atid pamphlets after Lapid’s presentations. “He’s someone willing to fight for equality in Israel, so I’m not the only one doing army service, and I will have a chance to buy an apartment. It’s a plus that he’s new, because other politicians have talked about these issues without doing anything.”

Less convinced is Amitai Young, 26, a student of international relations. “Lapid tries to stay in the middle and doesn’t get into the real areas of disagreement in Israeli society, such as how to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. I came today to listen to him because I was undecided -- and I still am.”

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