The new face of Israel


novice who has never had so much as a seat on a local council, 49-year-old Yair Lapid is to enter Knesset as the second-most powerful party leader in the country.

Lapid’s electoral success with his Yesh Atid party can be seen as chapter two of the social protests that began in the middle of 2011.

The protests touched a raw nerve among what Lapid calls the “42 per cent”. According to his calculation, this is the proportion of the population that is Jewish, secular and Zionist.

The social protests sparked anger that this sector of society is shouldering a disproportionate burden in terms of taxes and in terms of military service – a duty from which Arabs and Charedis are exempted.

Lapid tapped into this anger, and styled himself as a warrior for lower living costs for the Israeli middle class, which is widely seen to be going through an economic crisis, finding that even with good jobs the cost of living is simply too high.

Lapid had an advantage over any other newcomers to politics, in that citizens already felt like they knew him. He was anchor of Israel’s most popular weekend news show, columnist in the best-selling newspaper Yediot Ahronot, author, screenwriter and one-time actor.

He’s famously handsome, and was once voted the 36th-greatest Israeli.

But he had a problem. He was seen as antagonistic to the religious population, largely due to the anti-religious antics of his father, the late politician Yosef Lapid – and the modern-Orthodox electorate is an important one. So he cultivated good relations with the modern-Orthodox, and even included a rabbi, Dov Lipman, on his election list.

So, with his potential enemies turned into friends, Lapid went about capturing the hearts and minds of Israelis. And it wasn’t very difficult for him. All of his opinions were already “out there” in years’ worth of opinion articles in which he had carefully positioned himself as what readers considered the voice of common sense.

He says a strong “yes” to the peace process, but criticises the left as dreamy. He says that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must move ahead with peace if they are to talk coalition deals, but promises that he won’t go into any peace deal that is stacked against Israel. He speaks loudly for Zionism and strong Jewish identity, and voices concerns about intermarriage, but opposes what he sees as the zealotry of ultranationalists. And he is absolutely committed to ending the Charedi military exemption from the army and getting them serving.

The social activists who slept out in tents, many of whom see Lapid as too moderate in his demands for change, set the stage for him. He simply entered politics at the right time, saying the things that post-social protest Israel wanted to hear.

A year ago, when Lapid announced intentions to stand for office and polls showed that he would win between seven and 20 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, the figures were widely dismissed as an initial surge of enthusiasm.

But on Tuesday Lapid proved to one and all that he can keep up the excitement, and could be more than just another celebrity after 15 minutes of political fame.