The first sign that Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid was different from his
father, the late secularist justice minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, came when he
offered kosher cake at his home in Tel Aviv’s elitist Ramat Aviv Gimmel
Lapid did not build a succa for the holiday, but he has
built a friendship with modern Orthodox rabbis like Shai Piron of Oranit, Benny
Lau of Jerusalem, and Dov Lipman of Beit Shemesh. He also lacks his father’s
Pointing to a picture on his wall of the Shinui
leader with US President Barack Obama, taken during a January 2006 visit to
Israel by the then-senator, Lapid said his father called him and told him: “I
just met a guy who could be president of the United States – if he wasn’t
Lapid’s biography of his father was recently published in English
under the title Memories After My Death: The Story of Joseph ‘Tommy’ Lapid. The
English version of the book was published in London, where the elder Lapid was
sent as a correspondent for Ma’ariv when his son was a baby.
are unaware that he spent his first years in England are surprised by his
British-accented English and his fluency. He conducted the entire
interview with The Jerusalem Post in English without a problem, and while he is
known as the quintessential Israeli, he showed a deep understanding of American
politics and culture and used baseball metaphors.
politics, Lapid held two of the best jobs in Israeli journalism: Hosting Channel
2’s Friday night news magazine Ulpan Shishi and writing the lead column in
Yediot Aharonot’s weekly magazine. He also wrote 10 best-selling books, a
drama series and a play, he lectured, and he lived a relatively trouble-free
Lapid knows that now that he is a politician, nothing will be easy
anymore. But he is also a former boxer with pictures of Rocky on the wall
of his office, and when it comes to politics, he is ready to fight – in his
In his first interview to the English media since he entered
politics in January, Lapid talks about his views on key issues, his image, his
father and his faith.
It is now Succot. If you could invite anyone –
alive or dead – to your succa, who would it be and why?
My father would answer
Winston Churchill, because he felt he saved his life. I would pick Moses,
John F. Kennedy and Bruce Springsteen. I wrote about Moses in a book about my
heroes. I would tell him that the punishment God gave him of seeing the Land of
Israel and not coming in might have felt exaggerated, but I felt God used a
minor sin to prevent his favorite son from coming to the Land of milk and honey,
because we know he would find a troubled place with enemies and giants and
ongoing conflict. God gave him a Disney-like happy ending instead of forcing him
to lead the Israelites into inevitable disappointment. I wanted to tell
him that he should not have been disappointed and that God was actually being
nice to him. I would pick JFK, because he had the ability to tell a story in
which people improve themselves and then convince them to live up to the story
with efforts for civil rights and the moon project. That’s what this country
needs now, so I would want to seek his advice. I would tell Springsteen to come
and bring his guitar. It might not be an Orthodox succa, but it would be a very
Does your father’s legacy hinder you, as a politician
who intends to be less polarizing?
Somebody once asked him ‘why are you so blunt
and your son such a nice guy?’ He replied that the answer was that he had me and I didn’t have him. The Nazis took his father away when he was 13. I
was raised by a bigger-than-life father who was protective and authoritative. I
avoided his struggles thanks in part to him. I am more easy-going. But I agree
with him that religion should not be involved in Israeli politics, that it is
bad for religion and for politics. Yesh Atid is not an anti-religious party.
Being anti-religious is not our banner. When it comes to matters of religion and
state, my first choice would always be dialogue.
But Israel is no longer
capable of acting like a sovereign country if it sends women to the back of the
bus like they were Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, and does not object. The
country must say: ‘This is not going to happen. Israel has values and we won’t
stand for this. Change this, or there will be no bus.’ On that I am like my
father. He believed in the country’s duty to democracy, women’s rights, minority
rights, etc. I truly believe there is a generation of young Orthodox Jews who
have had enough of the tyranny of extremist rabbis and political figures who
don’t let them go to work, support their families, rescue themselves from
poverty. I tell hitech CEOs: We have an obligation as well. We have to
give them work.
Your plan for equalizing the burden of IDF service has
been misunderstood, in part because it’s complicated. Can you explain it in a
Plans that can be explained in a tweet aren’t worth explaining. I can’t
explain it in a tweet, but the plan says: (1) Everyone has to serve, (2) Not
every haredi youngster will be a paratrooper so there has to be civil service
frameworks for them, (3) In a five-year period in which we will change the
draft, we have to let them out of the yeshivas, set them free and let them go to
work. After that, every 18- year-old will go to the army or civil
service. They will have no other choice. It is a duty for Israeli
citizens. I don’t want to go with tanks into Bnei Brak or Mea She’arim, I don’t
want a civil war, but you don’t ask them whether they want to fulfill their
civic duties. They have to. 2012 will be the first year a majority of first
graders are Arab or haredi. That means that in 12 years, 50 percent of
18-yearolds won’t serve or work. I don’t want to ignore the problem. I want to
solve it. There is a symbolic problem in releasing people from their
duties as citizens.
Haredim would be offended by you grouping them
together with Arabs. They would call that anti-haredi.
Explaining why you
are not something is philosophically impossible, but I am not willing to be
called anti-haredi. I am a concerned citizen who sees his leadership not taking
the situation serious enough. The country cannot survive if 50% of the
populace are not part of the game. How can I tell my grandson to go to the army
even though the country officially lets more than half the people his age not
go? The problem is also moral. The conscientious objectors in my neighborhood
are immoral, horrible and a disgrace, but one of the reasons they feel they
cannot join the IDF is that they feel they have less of a moral obligation
because the government releases people. I think the country should stand on its
rights and tell the young haredim they have to serve. When the country stands
its ground, it usually succeeds.
You were the keynote speaker at the
Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Atlanta. Explain your views on
Other politicians might have an opinion on [MK
David] Rotem’s conversion bill, women praying at the [Western] Wall and civil
marriage, but they are always constructing a future coalition in their heads so
they don’t speak their minds. One day they might need Shas. I’m not
willing to play this game. Israel cannot be the only country without freedom of
religion for Jews. All streams must be equal. The monopoly of the Chief
Rabbinate on marriage should end. I want Israel to remain a Jewish state, but I
want separation of religion and politics. Laws like the anti-hametz law and the
pig law are insulting for the country. There is no law in Israel against driving
on Yom Kippur, but no one would dare move their car. When it’s not forced by a
law, 99% of Israelis would say they are proud Jews and Israelis and act
appropriately. I think people should be able to get married in a civil marriage
at City Hall like they do in Chicago. To tell people that they cannot get
married by a Reform rabbi is a disgrace. People are lying, and going to
Cyprus. This is shameful. There were always different streams and waves within
Judaism, and there always will be. That is something attractive about
Judaism. When [United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael] Eichler says in the
Knesset that Reform Jews are anti-Semites, someone should not only say that it
is insulting, they should kick him out of the coalition. I would kick out anyone
who incited by saying racist things against Jews or Arabs.
What would you
say to appeal to voters from English-speaking countries?
I think I speak my mind
regardless of what audience I am addressing. I say the same thing to journalists
from very different publications. If you vote for me, you get a clear voice for
everyone’s right to practice their Judaism as they see fit. [Haredi Beit
Shemesh community activist] Rabbi Dov Lipman is a devoted member of Yesh Atid
and a fantastic guy. I like him a lot. He understands the same way as me
how we can all live together. I won’t say who’ll be on the party’s list. If I am
able to convince [national religious rabbi and activist] Shai Piron, he’ll be on
the list. But I haven’t been able to convince him yet.
What will you be
looking for when you put together your Knesset list? Will you want a balance of
women, someone religious, someone Anglo like Lipman, etc.?
The media feels it
has to have names and faces, but the public is not interested. We are
looking for great people who can serve in the government or a Knesset committee
who know what to do because they headed all kinds of organizations. We
will publish the list three months before election time like all other
How will you deal with [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu
timing the election to his advantage on Iran – an issue that is not seen as your strong suit?
I never suspected Netanyahu would
help me in how he timed the election. If you don’t have adversaries and people
who tell you that what you are doing is chutzpah, you shouldn’t go into
politics. The theory that says that if the issues on the table are
serious no one can come into the political arena, would leave us stuck with the
same people. If you fail time and time again, that doesn’t make you experienced
in my book. The country is not doing well, and it insults my intelligence if you
tell me that the people who are making the country not do well have to stay in
power because the country is not doing well.
How would you handle Iran
differently from Netanyahu?
Netanyahu made two big mistakes on the Iranian
issue. The first was instigating a conflict with the US administration, betting
on the wrong pony and thinking [Republican candidate Mitt] Romney would win the
election. We have an Israeli prime minister who shares the biggest sponsor as
the Republican candidate in Sheldon Adelson and says things that hurt the
president in an election year. It has created a situation in which it became an
Israel-Iran problem and not a world-Iran problem. Netanyahu made it into
a local conflict between Israelis and Iranians, and this is wrong. There is only
one way to end the Iranian nuclear threat: the fall of the ayatollahs. An
Israeli strike would only delay the Iranian nuclear problem. It would enable the
Iranians to say we have been attacked by a nuclear country and now we have no
choice but to develop nuclear weapons. The way to make the ayatollahs fall is to
strengthen the sanctions. Average Iranian citizens don’t understand why
they have 60% inflation, why they can’t get chicken and they can’t get gas in
one of the world’s biggest oil suppliers. If this continues, the Iranian people
won’t stand for it. If you listen to Netanyahu, he is more interested in giving
ultimatums to the US. It is hubris to give an ultimatum to the US. People tend
to forget that the plane Netanyahu is sending to bomb Iran is an American plane.
He thinks he can drag America to do what it doesn’t want to do. He is leading
Israel to war too soon, before it’s necessary. Like Netanyahu, I think that if
we came to the point of no return, Israel would have to bomb, but there is still
a lot left to do to avoid that. I had problems with Netanyahu’s UN speech. Who
gives a date on war in advance? You only go to war when you have no choice. My
red line is the same as that of the professional security men I talk
How would you serve as a minister under Netanyahu when you are so
critical of him?
I think he’s wrong on a very crucial subject. What kind of
politician would I be if I am silent when I see things that matter that bother
me? On the Iranian issue, he did a great job by putting it on the world’s table,
but then he took it off the world’s table and made it an Israeli issue. It’s the
same with economy: He got it on track, then made mistakes.
Who do you
blame for the lack of negotiations with the Palestinians?
We as a country
decided to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am not a leftist. I think
the Palestinians should blame mostly themselves. After the disengagement,
instead of building hospitals and schools, they fired rockets. But if an Israeli
prime minister would be really determined to have negotiations, there would be
negotiations. I think Netanyahu is too scared of [activist Moshe] Feiglin and
[coalition chairman Ze’ev] Elkin and other extremists in his party, so he took
the most dangerous conflict, delayed dealing with it, and made our children have
to deal with double the number of Palestinians just so he will have an easier
time passing the next Likud convention in peace.
How do you think the
US-Israel relationship will be affected by four more years of Obama and Netanyahu in power?
There is still hope [Netanyahu will be
defeated]. They will find a way to work together. The relationship between the
US and Israel is stronger than the people in the relationship. It would help if
we had a different government and if we had a different prime
Why did you call Habayit Hayehudi leadership candidate Naftali
Bennett’s plan to annex Area C in the West Bank anti-Zionist?
He offered to give
50,000 Palestinians Israeli citizenship, and that was just the first stage. That
would cancel the Jewish right of return and allow a right of return to
[Palestinians] in a way. It opens a floodgate we cannot close in terms of human
rights, so I see it as an anti-Zionist plan. Any plan that puts the land of
Israel over the people of Israel is anti-Zionist. Our goal should be a Jewish
majority in Israel, so we will have to withdraw from territories minus the
blocs. [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Liberman’s plan [of giving the Palestinians
land in pre-1967 Israel that is populated by Arabs and keeping more of the West
Bank] is unconstitutional. Removing citizenship from Arabs is an
undemocratic concept. Like most of the things Liberman says, it sounds fantastic
and has no practical value.
Should the public lose faith in journalists
when an anchorman who is supposed to be objective jumps into politics?
This is a
cultural gap you will have to cross. In Israel, anchormen have
opinions. I am a columnist, and I have been a talk-show host. It will
take time for people to adjust and I understand that. Would you rather
have your leaders be professional politicians who go from one bar mitzva to
another kissing children they never met or people who live in the real world? I
was an anchorman for four years, I was a journalist for 31 years. Israelis
expect their leaders to be boring, and I understand that I do not qualify, but
they will get over it.
How can you keep writing your column if you are a
The national press council has ruled that there is nothing wrong
with it. I wish more Israeli politicians would write columns and be part of the
marketplace of ideas. I would like to know what they think about their family
and how their children are dealing with buying an apartment or their kids being
out of school for so long. I wish I could continue writing my column when I am
in the government. I think I will stop when the election is called, but it’s
If you say in your speeches that there are too many
parties, why did you form another instead of joining one that already exists?
accept the fact that there is something problematic with saying there should be
less parties and therefore I am creating a new one. The current parties are not
going to solve the country’s problems, because they had a chance and they
didn’t. For instance, they are not going to fix the election system. The
only way to fix it is to get a party into the Knesset and say ‘this is my
business, this is my red line, if you want my seats, this is the price I have to
pay.’ Either I will disappear because of my success or I will become a larger
party. I won’t say I would enter any coalition at any cost, but any party would
want to have influence.
How would you change the election system?
current system creates a culture of corruption. If your government is not
obliged to honesty and saving money for the people and all those cliches, who
are we to tell people that they need to be honest in paying taxes that they
could easily avoid? My plan says only the head of the biggest party would
construct the government, raise the electoral threshold to 6%, and you cannot
topple the government unless you have 70 votes. There would be a limit of 18
ministries and no minister-without-portfolio. I will take no
minister-without- portfolio for my party. Anyone who doesn’t want to change the
system should support the regional elections, because that would result in years
of fighting over how to divide the regions. I would be open to that
element only as part of Phase 2 of electoral reforms.
How can someone
with a reputation for hanging out with the wealthiest people in the country and
who has written about his love of expensive cigars and alcohol claim to
represent or even understand the socioeconomic problems of the middle class?
quit smoking two and a half years ago. I grew up in a typical middle-class
family in south Tel Aviv and then I made the error of doing well. I refuse to
apologize for doing well in my life. It is ridiculous to tell someone who has
been a journalist for 31 years, and volunteered for non-profit organizations
that support the poor, that they can’t understand. I live here. I won’t indulge
the people who think they know me because they read gossip columns. It’s too
What is your opinion on Jonathan Pollard?
I think he should
be released. It’s about time. The US is being unnecessarily harsh on someone
sick and getting old. All the spies from the Cold War were released years ago
even though they spied for an enemy. It’s time to release someone who spied for
How can your party handle another year with no election if
Netanyahu decides to pass the budget and hold the election on time in October?
We were supposed to be a month after the election now had Netanyahu moved it up
to September 4. I cherish all the time Netanyahu gave me. We have 13,000
volunteers now in 80 local headquarters under eight campaigns. Our
organization is the cheapest but we are very well organized. I have a background
in production. I know how to organize stuff. We felt the right way was to build
the party from the grass roots. If you ask me, I am ready tomorrow. But
every month I am given helps.
How do you explain that in spite of all the
problems you point out with the country, the Israel Democracy Index found that
76% of Israelis are optimistic?
When Israelis are asked if they are happy, they
see it as a poll about their patriotism, and Israelis are patriotic. If the
question was not whether they are happy but if they are happy about the way
things are going, the answers would be different because the country is going in
the wrong direction. We are increasingly dividing into groups and we are losing
the world’s sympathy. The global economic market is gloomy and that impacts our
economy. Our government does not function, so we have to do something
about it. Israelis are not happy about the way things are. They are only happy
because this is the place they have chosen. I believe that things can be handled
better, and that’s why I left my job to run. We have real solutions to real
problems and we can do a better job than the politicians. We can bring a new
kind of politics. Whether I am the answer is for the voter to decide.