During the Gaza war of 2014, Yair Lapid had a running act with Yitzhak Aharonovitch.
Both were members of the security cabinet at the time – Lapid as finance minister and Aharonovitch as public security minister – and the two were constantly surprised by the media leaks from what was supposed to be Israel’s most secret forum.
Every couple of meetings, one of them would suggest bringing a lie detector into the room. They would then watch as the other ministers’ eyes began to wander from the ceiling to the floor and back again.
That summer was a life-changing experience for Lapid. While it was the first time that the TV star turned politician was making decisions with direct life-and-death consequences, it was also the moment when he realized that the system really is broken; that as rotten as the public might think the government is, it is, Lapid concluded at the time, actually far worse.
For that reason, Lapid is on a mission. Yes, he wants to replace Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. But in a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post, he says he also wants to change the system. Not the electoral system, he clarifies, but the country’s entire political culture.
Ambitious? Yes. Naïve? He doesn’t think so.
When Lapid, 53, established Yesh Atid in 2012, he tapped into a sentiment of frustration within the Israeli public, one of disappointment with the cost of living, with the way the middle class was being treated, and with how the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties were getting too much of the public purse.
“Where’s the money?” – a headline from an old column he wrote in Yediot Aharonot – became his party’s slogan. With his good looks, charisma, fame and trademark black T-shirt, Lapid was aiming to pull the country back to the Center.
When he won 19 seats and became the finance minister, Lapid embarked on a journey not just to find the money but to redistribute it. He ensured that the haredim stayed out of the government, he got Netanyahu to agree to limit the number of ministers to 18, he spearheaded legislation to draft the ultra-Orthodox and, despite having no government or economic experience, he managed to balance Israel’s budget in a way that kept the economy in check, gloomier predictions notwithstanding.
Now, after two years in the wilderness of the opposition, Lapid has not lost his ambition for change. It has only become stronger. The difference is in the subtleties. Long gone are the black T-shirts.
A prime-ministerial candidate, he understood last election, always wears a suit and tie. If you want the part, you have to look it.
But that is just appearances. In substance, Lapid is one of the most consistent politicians today when it comes to his messaging. At times he seems to have moved Right, talking tough against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and left-wing groups such as Breaking the Silence. But he still endorses a twostate solution. When rivals criticize him for lacking an ideological backbone, Lapid pushes back.
“It is easier to be an extremist, to say vivid things that lack any doubt, see no shades and ignore completely the complexity and how compounded things are,” he tells me. Being a centrist, he says, means being conflicted.
But being conflicted hasn’t stopped Lapid from being clear where he stands on a wide range of issues. Yesh Atid, for example, published ahead of the last election a seven-point plan for Israel, tackling the economy, society and security. It came out to a 237-page platform. Now, compare that with most political parties here, which don’t have even a 10-page platform. While Lapid believes change is needed, he stresses that Israel is a country to be proud of.
“But there is a problem and a hole in the gas tank,” he says. “Our political system is corrupt to the bone. It is inefficient, preoccupied with itself and a complex map of interests that stopped working for the people a long time ago. All we see are politicians who work for one another. This needs to change.”
Something in his messaging is working with voters. In almost all recent polls, Lapid comes out No. 1 as the most suitable candidate to one day replace Netanyahu. His party is polling neckto- neck with the Likud, coming out, in one recent poll, just ahead of the ruling party, with 26 seats compared to just 23 for the Likud.
But, I tell him, those polls are meaningless if you can’t form a coalition, and with the haredi party United Torah Judaism banning any contact with you, how can you think of becoming prime minister? So, I say, you will have to compromise, you will have to pay off your coalition partners and you will have to be like every other politician before you.
Lapid shakes his head and smiles. He points to the wall in his small Knesset office where two portraits hang, one of Menachem Begin and the other of David Ben-Gurion. They are there, he says, to remind him how Israel once upon a time had politicians who knew how to maneuver within the political field without becoming corrupt.
“They knew politics and how to cut deals and to get positive results from allies,” Lapid says. “But they also had basic rules that no one dared to ask them to break.”
Lapid seems to yearn for this kind of political culture. But, I tell him, in the Israel of 2017 where politicians just this week used the trial of IDF soldier Elor Azaria as a political tool, it is difficult to imagine the country returning to the days of Begin or Ben-Gurion. Has the culture not changed, I ask, to the point of no return? To his credit, Lapid refuses to surrender to that sentiment or to apologize for believing in a different option, even one that is difficult to imagine.
“This is the essence of the problem,” he says. “We have been living under a broken and corrupt political system that taught us all – journalists, politicians and the public – that you will not discuss the good of the people, but you will discuss compromise in the worst possible way.”
What is needed for change to happen, he says, is simply for Yesh Atid to win in the next election, whenever it might be.
Lapid is confident that if he wins, the rest of the parties will fall in line with the new culture he will bring to the top echelons of power.
“We bring a new spirit,” he says of his fellow party members. “We are a group of people who left successful careers, and by now we have enough administrative and governmental experience to deliver the goods. We are here to change the system, which is ruined.”
So, I ask Lapid, what would you do differently if you were prime minister? How, for example, would you manage the security cabinet meetings, beyond placing, as he said he would, a lie detector at the entrance to the room where the cabinet meets in the Prime Minister’s Office? Before answering, Lapid first explains the four different categories of conversations the cabinet could hold. There could be strategic discussions about issues like the peace process; there could be discussions on the defense budget; there could be what he calls “advance reactions” for deciding how to respond one day if, for example, a soldier is abducted; and there could be tactical discussions about attacking different targets along Israel’s borders.
The cabinet, he says, holds discussions only on the fourth topic – on tactical issues. In 2013, he says, he demanded that a discussion be held in the cabinet on Israel-US relations, but that “to this very day, such a discussion – on one of the most critical issues for Israel’s security – has not taken place.”
Why is that? I ask.
“Our current political leadership is more about avoiding trouble than about dealing with issues,” he says.
“There is political risk when going deep into things like our relationship with the US or the day after [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas and the consequences.”
What is the political risk? I ask.
“If you are going to delve into such a discourse with three cabinet sessions, then you have to come out the other side with a decision that will anger somebody, and angering somebody is bad for political survival; and if all you are about is political survival, then you will avoid this,” he explains.
ON THE SHELF behind Lapid is an old typewriter. It belonged to his grandfather David Giladi, one of the founders of Maariv. His other grandfather was a reporter in Serbia, before he was murdered by the Nazis. His parents – former minister Tommy Lapid and novelist Shulamit Lapid, also journalists – met in the Maariv newspaper archive.
As a self-described “blue-blooded” journalist, I ask, how do you feel when seeing the constant attacks on the American press by President Donald Trump? First, Lapid says, there is no need to look to America for attacks on the media. Enough of that is happening in Israel.
“The fact that I have to tell you – what we both know – that the free press is the core and fundamental base of democracy used to be awkward. Now it is scary,” he says. “When politicians find a useful and popular trick, they will use it, and this is a useful and popular trick. It is disturbing.”
While avoiding direct criticism of Trump, Lapid takes the new president to task for omitting “Jews” from the statement the White House put out to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“The Holocaust is the Jewish Holocaust,” Lapid says. “I know that we live in an era in which people say nothing is sacred. But this is sacred, and if somebody has doubts whether the Holocaust is the Jewish Holocaust, I am more than willing to take them with me to the Mauthausen concentration camp and take them to the gas chamber where my grandfather died, scratching the door, trying, to the last moment, to rescue himself because he knew his child was waiting for him somewhere.”
Nevertheless, Lapid says he is happy to see an administration that is so friendly to Israel. With the Obama administration, he says, he was upset over the Iran nuclear deal and the failure to veto Security Council Resolution 2334. The “overwhelmingly pro-Israel” Trump administration, he says, was long in coming.
But, he says, Israel needs to make sure that it does not lose the Democratic Party. Israel, he warns, is on the verge of “becoming a partisan issue in the US.”
Yesh Atid, he says, recently formed a roundtable with democratic lawmakers in Washington to keep up a dialogue and counter what people sometimes think – that Israel has become Republican.
“I don’t think Democrats or even progressive Democrats are instinctively or automatically against Israel,” he says. “I think it has to do with the kind of work we will do opposite them and the kind of relations we have with them.”
This leads Lapid to his biggest criticism yet of the Netanyahu government – the absence of policy. This vacuum, he explains, is playing out now at the Western Wall, where the government decided a year ago to establish a third pluralistic prayer plaza, but has since dragged its feet, due to pressure from the haredim.
If he were prime minister, he says, he would implement the plan immediately.
“Our relationship with the US is fundamental for our security, and it is based on the fact that American Jewry is proactive in helping us work with the American administration,” he explains.
The Western Wall, he says, is directly linked to Israel’s national security.
“When we offend these same Jewish people and senators and congressmen by not implementing the Western Wall framework, we have in many ways hurt their commitment to help us in the future. People tend to not help you too much, if you hurt their feelings and beliefs on a daily basis. This is why it is hurting security.”
Another issue that could use some clear policy, he says, is Israel’s stance on the conflict with the Palestinians. Trump’s presidency, he explains, could have been an amazing “window of opportunity” for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians from a position of strength.
“We see now how the Palestinian strategy has collapsed in front of their eyes.
They saw over the last few years that they don’t need to do anything. They can just reject any idea and in the meantime accumulate international pressure on Israel, go to The Hague, the press, the BDS movement, incite, cheat, lie and draft the European radical Left and the American radical Left,” he says. “They felt they were doing a great job, and then Trump came to power and it all collapsed.”
To take advantage of this collapse, though, Israel needs a clear policy, Lapid says, of what it wants from the Palestinians and where it wants to go with them.
“We could have negotiated with them from an unbelievable position of strength. But this government is not going to do it, because no one wants to get into trouble because of Bezalel Smotrich,” he says, a reference to the hard-liner MK from Bayit Yehudi.
Lapid isn’t afraid to voice support for a two-state solution, something Netanyahu acrobatically avoided – despite repeated questions – at his recent press conference with Trump at the White House.
Nevertheless, he says, this is not about making peace but about separating from the Palestinians to safeguard Israel’s own interests.
“I am a politician, not an acrobat,” Lapid says. “This is the right thing for our security and for the Jewish identity of our people.... I want to separate from them. It is not a peace process but a separation.”
But, Lapid says, the negotiations will not be directly with the Palestinians.
It will need to be, he says, with the wider Arab world, so the Palestinians will know “that it is not us they are giving promises to but, rather, to the Arab world, which will tell them that there will be no cooperation, money or anything else from us, unless you implement whatever you sign.”
I DON’T KNOW if Lapid will be able to keep up the momentum of his current rise in the polls by the time an election rolls along. A new leader of the Labor Party, for example, would likely chip away from his electoral power.
Lapid claims that no matter what happens, his policies will stay the way they are. His ideology will continue to be conflicted, but it will represent the complexities of life in a country like Israel, with a diverse population and a long list of security and economic challenges.
“The definition of leadership is not opposing the enemy but telling your people the things they don’t want to hear,” he says. “We are keen about saying what is sane, moderate, centrist – and sometimes not sexy – but very functional and nuanced, and doing the right thing instead of the thing that sounds good.”