Yesh Atid proves its staying power as it enters new decade - analysis

Why did Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party colleagues prove their staying power against the odds?

 Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is seen holding a cake celebrating the 10 years of existence for his Yesh Atid Party. (photo credit: Roei Konkol)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is seen holding a cake celebrating the 10 years of existence for his Yesh Atid Party.
(photo credit: Roei Konkol)

When TV anchorman and author Yair Lapid announced that he would be leaving journalism to enter politics on January 8, 2012, there were many who doubted he would still be in public service and on the path toward the premiership a decade later.

Lapid had earned millions in his successful careers before and was seen as following in the footsteps of other celebrities who took a hiatus to try out politics. Dash, the Third Way, the Center Party, Kadima and his own father's Shinui had tried to establish themselves as centrist parties permanently on the political landscape, but all had failed.

So why did Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party colleagues prove their staying power against the odds?

Lapid had served as an unofficial strategist for his father, Yosef Lapid, and he learned lessons from his mistakes: He built up a strong party infrastructure, ensured there could be no challenge from inside the party, built a list of loyal professionals willing to sacrifice their ego and stayed on message, guided by his American strategist Mark Mellman. The one goal he had that never succeeded was shedding his father's anti-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) image and working together with the haredim in the same coalition.  

"The first secret to the success is Lapid's strength of character, determination, work ethic, which are at the core of creating something long-term and sustainable," a veteran party official said. "The second is the strength of the field operation, the huge investment in building a party infrastructure of activists and volunteers who feel connected to the party and want it to stay strong. Lastly, those activists feel they are part of clear, coherent values and principles that guide and unite them. That allows them to remain committed to it."
 FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid speaks at an event in the Knesset in October marking the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid speaks at an event in the Knesset in October marking the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Kadima, by contrast, had that leadership under its founder Ariel Sharon, until he had a stroke before its first election, and never had the infrastructure or united ideology. Consequently, when it faced leadership battles between Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, the party fell apart. 

Ayelet Frish, who was a strategist for Lapid after then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired him from his post as finance minister, recalled that some polls showed Yesh Atid failing to cross the threshold after he was not given enough time to leave his mark. But every night, he met more people in parlor meetings and rallies and worked hard to gain the trust of the voters, and it paid off when he won 11 seats in the 2015 election.

"Lapid was more determined than other centrist party leaders not to compromise on what is right, even if he had to pay a price," said his first spokeswoman in politics Nilly Richman.

"He has an extraordinary ability to unite people with different views around the 80% they agree on. He works systematically and constructively to keep his base of those 11 mandates and build them to break his glass ceiling of the 22 that he promised in the future. Livni and the others could not match his ability to get a team to work together." 

After his firing, Yesh Atid remained in the opposition for years, which has helped kill plenty of parties.

"Lapid was able to keep his party united, unlike Kadima and Blue and White, as they shifted between the coalition and opposition," said former Kadima and Kulanu strategist Lior Chorev.

"They survived the opposition, which Kadima couldn't. He did not have primaries, which also hurt Kadima after Livni couldn't accept the results when she lost. Lapid was able to maintain an agenda on a range of civil issues that have nothing to do with Right and Left." 

Chorev noted that even when Lapid joined the Blue and White alliance, he insisted on maintaining the independence of Yesh Atid, and after he sacrificed his ego to allow Benny Gantz to go first on the list, he did not compromise when Gantz entered Netanyahu's government and he refused. 

"Going to the opposition helped him create the means for victory, but he didn't go back on his ideology of not serving under Netanyahu," Chorev said. "He kept his integrity."

Lastly, Chorev said that when he faced political challenges, like when longtime confidant Ofer Shelah rebelled or when Yesh Atid MKs faced investigations, "Lapid showed he could be both generous and cruel. You need to be both in order to show there is a price to be paid for being disloyal." 

While still crediting Lapid, former Labor Party strategist Tom Wegner, said the timing worked out for him in that the people of Israel were ready for a strong centrist party with a new ideology that was not just a mix of Left and Right as other centrist parties had been in the past. 

"Before Lapid, there wasn't a real centrist bloc in Israel," he said. "People were fine with the Right-Left divide, and when parties like the Third Way came, people asked what's the point? Lapid had an advantage over others because he and his candidates weren't identified with a previous party. He identified a new political address. He succeeded at maneuvering himself to appeal to both Right and Left with proper political acrobatics and without making any massive political blunders."

Tal Alexandrovich Segev, who was Blue and White's strategist, said she was impressed by how Yesh Atid outlasted parties with stars that came and threatened its future. She said Lapid passed plenty of political and personal tests that now have him on the verge of becoming prime minister. 

"Yesh Atid is a wonder in Israeli politics," she said. "It succeded in surviving ten very hard years. New parties come and go but staying over the years through the ups and downs has proven the strength of Yesh Atid."