Politics: Who’s afraid of Yair Lapid?

Can he be prevented from capitalizing on stardom.

yair lapid 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yair lapid 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On November 12, 2005, new Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz threatened to bring down prime minister Ariel Sharon’s government in a fawning interview with anchor Shelly Yacimovich on Channel 2’s Meet the Press program.
Just two and a half weeks later, Yacimovich joined Labor at Peretz’s request and announced her candidacy for the Knesset.
The abrupt move shocked the political and media establishment and spurred calls for a cooling-off period for journalists before they make a transition into politics. But Yacimovich entered the Knesset and other journalists followed her without any cooling-off period being set.
Fast-forward to 2010. Late Shinui leader Yosef (Tommy) Lapid’s son Yair, who anchors Channel 2’s top rated news magazine Ulpan Shishi, has given every indication that he intends to follow his father from journalism into politics. Polls have shown that he can match his father’s accomplishment of 15 seats, and if he handles his political career correctly, eventually become a serious candidate for prime minister.
But this time, the cabinet and the Knesset appear poised to prevent Lapid from “pulling a Yacimovich” and going from interviewing politicians to becoming one of them overnight.
On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation is expected to approve Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh’s so-called Yair Lapid bill, which would require journalists to quit their jobs at least six months before the set date for an election in which they plan to run. The bill will then be brought to a preliminary reading in the Knesset.
At a Knesset conference of current and former media executives about the bill on Tuesday, Israel Broadcasting Authority director-general Moti Shklar agreed to bring the six-month cooling off period to the National Council of Editors that he heads to see whether the media chiefs will institute a cooling-off period on their own and preempt the Knesset legislation.
While Shklar opposes cooling-off periods, a majority of editors are expected to support the proposal, first of all for the pure motive of preventing the Knesset from interfering and defying the sanctity of press freedom.
But more importantly, because they want to deprive Channel 2 of its ratings king anchor and top circulation newspaper Yediot Aharonot of its star columnist.
Lapid himself appeared to accept the cooling-off period concept in a letter he wrote on Monday to his superiors at Channel 2.
“My only link to the field [of politics] is that I was asked in the past whether I foresaw a possibility that in the future I would join politics and I said that it was a distant possibility, but I am not rejecting it out of hand,” Lapid wrote. “I decided to make it clear that I am applying to myself the ‘cooling-off bill,’ which is currently at the initial stages of deliberation, and promise that if I ever decide to change my mind and go into to politics, I will announce it at least six months in advance.”
But Lapid’s promise will likely prove irrelevant because no national election has been held on time since 1981, and when elections are advanced, the campaign is usually just four months.
Unless the next election is held on time, on October 22, 2013, Lapid can exploit this loophole to keep his current jobs until the day early elections are announced. That would allow him to run without losing his luster and to continue to use his TV show to make his face even more recognizable and his column to promote his opinions.
Lapid has already become one of the main voices of opposition to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the right-wing and haredi parties in his government. Last week’s news reports about a speech in which Lapid outlined his views were considered sexy because a reporter had snuck in a tape recorder.
But any regular reader of Yediot Aharonot on Fridays, which can be up to half the population, knows that Lapid thinks Israel’s public relations are a total failure and that he backs drafting yeshiva students, requiring haredim to learn the core curriculum, transferring a fourth of the defense budget to education, withdrawing from the West Bank and the Golan Heights and limiting the number of ministers. On Thursday morning, Yediot subscribers found on their doorsteps a front page Lapid column about the Emanuel scandal with the headline “It is forbidden to surrender.” In the column, he speaks for the secular majority saying that “time after time, our hearts boil with anger” and complaining about a United Torah Judaism MK who compared Israel to Nazi Germany.
At a time when haredi-secular relations have become big news and the most fragile fault line in the government, Lapid provides a voice for the secular masses that no one in the Knesset provides today.
Habayit Hayehudi MK Uri Orbach, who had a column in Yediot and a show on Army Radio before he entered the political fray, summed it up when he said at Tuesday’s conference that even if he did watch television on Friday night, he could not watch Lapid because he already saw him as a politician.
At the conference, former Second Television Authority chairman Yitzhak Livni, who was a close friend of Tommy Lapid, pointed his finger at the politicians in the room and accused them of being afraid of Yair.
“MKs just support this bill because they see him as a threat to their own jobs,” said Livni, who is not related to the head of Kadima.
“They know there are only 120 seats available here and they know that if he joins, this place will look different.”
Livni put the MKs on the defensive.
Likud MK Carmel Shama, who has his own Lapid bill with a year’s cooling-off period, volunteered to have the legislation only take effect with the following Knesset to prove that his bill was not targeted at Lapid.
“I didn’t do this for the next Knesset but for the next hundred Knessets,” Shama said. “MKs aren’t afraid of Yair Lapid. I’m not worried personally about him entering politics because it would only help my party, so there are no conflicts of interest.”
That last jab was clearly aimed at Tirosh, whose Kadima could lose half its support if there was another centrist party aimed at secular Israelis. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni told Army Radio on Wednesday that she wanted Lapid to enter politics and called him a personal friend.
Kadima sources said Livni has actively tried to woo Lapid to her party behind the scenes. Lapid’s decision about whether to join Kadima or start his own party could decide Livni’s political career.
The remnants of Labor and Meretz also have an interest in Lapid staying out of politics and in ending up on his list if he joined.
Likud MKs are divided about Lapid. Some, like Shama, think he will divide the center-left and help Netanyahu win a second term. But others fear Lapid can unite the opposition and give it new life.
The only MKs who seemed overjoyed this week about the prospect of Lapid in politics were the haredim.
A Shas official recalled that his party’s heyday coincided with Tommy Lapid’s reign.
“We are definitely not afraid of Yair Lapid,” the Shas official said.