“You are our first guests in Balfour,” Lihi Lapid says as she greets me at the entrance to the small apartment in which she and Prime Minister Yair Lapid have been spending their time on the corner of Balfour Street in Jerusalem.
“Apart from my family who came to drink coffee, we haven’t hosted anyone here yet.”
Three months ago, when the government fell and Lapid became prime minister, he asked to convert a modest three-room apartment in the secure compound that was used by the security guards for his own use. Lapid says they have “regular days, every Saturday and Sunday” in the modest apartment. It is just a few meters away from the official Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour, which has been under renovation since former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved out last year.
During the rest of the week, they continue to reside in their private home in Ramat Aviv. “It depends on Yair’s schedule; there are times when he also has to be in Tel Aviv,” Lihi says.
After more than a decade by her husband’s side in politics, she became the Prime Minister’s wife three months ago, even though it has a somewhat temporary status as the government may very well be replaced after the November 1 elections.
“Today I have a role; it has a name and a title. I find myself asking what I can do and what I cannot do as the prime minister’s wife – what is allowed or not allowed.Lihi Lapid
Nevertheless, in a special interview, she says she was “surprised how my life has really changed. It’s really different. Until today, I didn’t really have a role. Yair had a role and I was his wife. Even as the wife of a foreign minister, everything continued more or less the same for me,” she said.
“Today I have a role; it has a name and a title. I find myself asking what I can do and what I cannot do as the prime minister’s wife – what is allowed or not allowed. For instance, I really like sunsets in the sea, and it took me a while before I said to myself: It’s fine, you can still go to the beach and watch the sunset, even with a glass of beer.”
She doesn’t have an official office, she revealed, but only one close adviser who assists her with public inquiries and scheduling, mostly requests to participate in events and meetings, and for advice and guidance for parents of children with special needs – like the Lapids, who have an autistic daughter, 25-year-old Yaeli.
What does Lapid think about her job?
“I see the job as both a responsibility and a right, and a possibility and opportunity to take something important and promote it,” the prime minister’s wife said. “In the end, any public role is a kind of speaker, an amplifier. There are two issues which I’ve been working on for years: special needs and women’s rights. If now they will have a bigger loudspeaker and more people will hear and talk about them, I’m happy,” she explains.
You haven’t been seen much by your husband’s side. Many people raised an eyebrow that you did not accompany him to the United Nations, or on his visit to Germany. The usual interpretation is an attempt to distinguish yourself from the Netanyahus.
Yair has been in politics for 10 years and I never traveled with him anywhere. I wasn’t there physically, but I am there mentally and emotionally. He shared his thoughts with me before he decided to take Holocaust survivors with him to Villa Wannsee and also consulted with me on his speech at the United Nations.
I am with him in heart and soul, less so on the steps of the plane. There are clear and well-ordered protocols for events that require spouses’ participation. I will travel if it is necessary, but so far there haven’t been any events of that kind.
At the end of day, your husband became prime minister under quite unhappy circumstances. The government fell and the Knesset dispersed for the fifth election.
I’m sad that the government didn’t continue. Even though I was lucky to have my husband as prime minister, I would have been happy if it had survived another year, because I thought it had magical potential.
Your husband reached the position of prime minister after many, many years when people underestimated him and said he couldn’t. How did that feel?
I have to admit that I smile sweetly inside with happiness when I think of all the people who degraded Yair, who did not appreciate his ability to read a political map, to build a party and a government. To see them now saying, ‘Wow, we now understand who he really is, we didn’t see, we didn’t understand.’ Yes, I smile sweetly inside.
People still say he won’t be able to do that again after the election, that he’s incapable of building another coalition.
Look, he already did something once that no one thought was possible – he surprised me as well. After the previous elections, I remember him looking at the results and saying there can be a government. And so it happened. And I believe he can do it again.
During COVID-19, I started running – I found a nature reserve behind our house – and I remember one day, listening to the radio when running in the field. Yair had just started his negotiations, and one of the reporters said, ‘There is no chance it can happen.’ And I said, ‘It will work.’
In general, I am fed up with the disdain toward Yair, with people degrading him and laughing at him. We can start erasing this cynicism from the dictionary. The man made an amazing journey, even if he would only be foreign minister. He built this government and it is an amazing thing. A while ago I was in a restaurant and someone who drank a little too much next to me started shouting. I got up and left. No one speaks badly about Yair near me. And I don’t talk badly about other people either."
Lihi, 54, began her professional career as a photographer and journalist, and in recent years has focused on writing books. In 2019, after the first round of elections, she was fired from her job writing a weekly column for the Yediot local newspaper network, and she publicly attributed it to her husband’s politics.
Asked whether she feels she paid a professional price because of her husband’s career, she says that “one day I decided to accept the fact that Yair is in a place that leads us all to a roller coaster of emotions and events. Sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down.
“In the end, at the age of 78, we will sit on the bench and will be able to look back on it. There are many people who have paid a much heavier price for this country, and I believe that it’s a small price to pay for a better country for our children and grandchildren and I do it with love.
“Losing my column was sad and painful, but it also caused me to write the book Strangers after many years of not being able to find peace and quiet to write a book. Sometimes something happens that seems very bad, but in the end it opens a door.”
Yair's project – the formation of the government that ended the 12-year Netanyahu rule and made him prime minister – would not have been possible without his political partner Naftali Bennett.
According to Lihi Lapid, there is “a true friendship” between the former and incumbent prime minister.
“I’m sure that if they would have met in any other constellation, they would have become friends – me and Gilat [Bennett] as well. The four of us are for life. That was part of the magic of this government, in which we discovered that Israelis are not that different.
“Naftali and Yair, Gilat and myself – in the end, there is some common Israeliness: about 80% of the public who are very similar in their aspirations and thoughts. We all ate an apple with honey a few days ago and will sit in the sukkah for a few more days.”
Eighty percent consensus was supposed to be the formula of the Bennett-Lapid government. It didn’t really succeed.
Politics is tough and there are a lot of interests and tugs of war, but it has to succeed.
What about the model of the partnership with Ra’am – even in your husband’s camp, some people determined that the experiment failed.
The idea was lovely. Sometimes things are ahead of their time.
Are you still friends with the Bennetts today? Because there have been many reports about tensions between him and your husband since they changed roles.
Yes. A few weeks ago I opened the door to Bennett and told him, ‘I just heard that you had a fight!’ So yes, they are still friends.
Gilat Bennett was very discreet as the prime minister’s wife.
I think it is easier for me. I have been speaking and appearing publicly for many years. It was hard for her, though. Our experience was also different than theirs. In our audience, everyone was happy about the government. We received hugs, reinforcements, messages of support on the street – and that was a very different experience than what they went through.
Have you received more insults and curses since your husband took office?
Yes. It’s mostly online and through anonymous messages and WhatsApps. In the online world, there is disdain and insults and curses; I don’t see it in the real world. Meeting face to face is different. People don’t come up to you in the street to insult you, even if they don’t vote for Yesh Atid.
Do you have more empathy today for Sara Netanyahu and her claims about the treatment and shaming she received from the public and the media?
To begin with, I always thought that Sara really had a hard time: the feeling that she is trying so hard, and the public doesn’t acknowledge it and accepts it differently. Its very hard to have the ricochets flying at you because of your partner doing something, and it’s very difficult to embark on a political journey without the family’s back and support and help. Yair has that.