Israel TV Star Lapid Defies Critics With Election Surge

Israel’s Yair Lapid, a former television interviewer dubbed by the Haaretz daily the “prom king politician,” answered his critics yesterday by scoring a surprise second-place outcome in national elections.

The success of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party means that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “will now probably put together a more centrist government, with Lapid as his main partner,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel.

While Lapid, 49, supports a two-state solution to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, his campaign largely refrained from criticizing Netanyahu on diplomatic affairs. Instead, he focused on domestic issues he said were important to Israel’s middle class, including lowering housing costs, cutting government bureaucracy and eliminating draft deferments for ultra-religious Jews.

Yesh Atid, Hebrew for “there is a future,” won 18 parliament seats according to Channel Two’s exit poll, higher than any survey predicted and second only to Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu. The prime minister’s party won 33, according to the poll, and will need other parties to build a majority coalition in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.

“We have the opportunity to do very big things for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu told Lapid after the vote, according to comments posted on the prime minister’s Facebook page.

Model, Journalist

Lapid has worked as a model, actor, journalist and, for the past decade, a television interviewer and the host of a highly rated current affairs program. Haaretz called him a “former teenage heart-throb with daddy issues” and “the ultimate personification of a political sphere obsessed with stardom.”

His candidacy 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 has said he entered politics in part to carry on the legacy of his late father. Tommy Lapid, who died in 2008, was also a journalist and broadcaster, whose now-defunct Shinui party 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 in evacuating of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip.

Lapid founded Yesh Atid last year to fill the centrist gap left by Shinui’s absence, with a parliamentary list that, except for Herzliya 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, a former Jerusalem police chief; and journalist Ofer Shelah.

“I call on the leaders of the political echelon to work with me as much as possible to form as wide a coalition as possible,” Lapid said in his post-election speech, “so that will unite the moderate forces from the right and the left.”

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