Lapid Lights Up Israeli Politics

Yair Lapid’s jump from journalism into politics could herald a break in the Likud-led lock on power by luring centrist, secular voters.

yair lapid 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yair lapid 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yair Lapid’s dazzling entry into politics is evidence of a potentially game-changing vacuum at the center of the Israeli political spectrum. Polls show the popular 48-year-old TV anchorman, columnist, playwright and author winning as many as 11 to 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset simply on the strength of a curt announcement, in early January, that he intends to run for office.
There are two ways Lapid could alter the trajectory of Israeli politics: As part of an alternative centrist regime with Kadima and Labor that would promote peace, secular democracy and a more equitable distribution of national wealth, or as a moderating force in a Likud-led administration focusing on middle-class secular and socioeconomic interests.
Lapid’s initial success reflects a widespread longing among middle-of-the-road Israelis for a different kind of national leadership – secular, democratic and genuinely peace-seeking. In other words, the antithesis of the right-wing religious insularity of the current Likud-led coalition.
As the mass protests in the summer showed, young middle-class Israelis yearn for normal post-conflict lives. And, in the interim, as the group bearing the brunt of military service, they demand a fairer deal in the allocation of national resources.
This is the group whose interests Lapid claims to represent. It constitutes a huge, malleable, secular-centrist constituency, with as many as 30 to 40 floating seats up for grabs. Indeed, major success here for Lapid could help break the current mold of Israeli politics. If in the election scheduled for winter 2013 but widely expected to be called sooner, Lapid, Kadima and Labor can garner around 45 seats between them, they could break the current religious right stranglehold on power and form the core of a more moderate centrist government with a very different domestic and foreign policy agenda.
The name of the game is whether the Lapid vote will simply cut into the Kadima and Labor tally, or whether together they will be able to wean enough centrist-leaning voters away from the right to radically alter the balance of power. Alternatively, Lapid could offer a large batch of seats to counter or even neutralize ultra-Orthodox influence in another Likud-led coalition.
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu regained the premiership in 2009 largely on the back of a strategic alliance with the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party.
Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, the architect of the alliance, put out initial feelers to Shas while it was still part of Ehud Olmert’s Kadima-led coalition. His initiative quickly bore fruit. When Olmert was forced to resign in September 2008 over a slew of financial scandals, Shas refused to support his successor Tzipi Livni for prime minister. And although Livni won most seats in the ensuing national election, 28 to Netanyahu’s 27, Shas, bound by the strategic alliance, again stood by the Likud leader, helping him to secure the premiership.
But Shas’s support comes at a price.
When the Likud in return panders to narrow ultra-Orthodox interests, it loses ground in the secular center where the next election could be won or lost. This has reignited an as yet unresolved pro and anti-Shas debate inside the Likud.
Cabinet Minister Michael Eitan, for example, argues that perceived closeness to Shas has a double downside for Likud: By refraining from attacks on Shas, Likud loses some of its blue-collar Sephardi support to the ultra-Orthodox party, and, more importantly, the alliance causes disaffection in the liberal center where much of the crucial secular vote lies. “The Likud must return to national liberal values.
Otherwise it could lose the political center,” a concerned Eitan declared the day after Lapid announced his campaign.
For now, most polls still show the Likud as the biggest single party and the right-wing religious bloc holding a winning majority. There was, however, one notable exception: A mid-January survey by leading pollster Mina Tzemach showed the center-left and right-wing religious blocs virtually tied, with Lapid and former Shas leader Arye Deri, who intends to run at the head of an independent, nonsectarian, socially oriented list, as the potential kingmakers.
Quintessential Israeli Lapid, with his rugged good looks, coy bashfulness and quintessential Israeliness, has created a public persona many can identify with – especially young, secular voters. A prolific writer, with 11 books and two plays to his credit, he is the son of novelist Shulamit Lapid and the late Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, a brash outspoken journalist who led the centrist anti-Haredi Shinui party to its greatest electoral success, 15 Knesset seats in 2003.
The younger Lapid, a sometime amateur boxer whom his wife wryly calls “the strong one,” has a softer public persona and has often been criticized for trying too hard to please. Like his more confrontational late father, he is deliberately maintaining a degree of ambiguity on the Palestinian issue to attract votes from both the right and the left and leave himself the option of joining coalitions on either side of the political divide. The ambiguity could also help him attract Russian immigrant voters who might feel that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu has failed to deliver on the secular agenda Lapid is now promoting.
Lapid has already coined an election slogan: “Where's the money?” He posed this question in a column outlining the gist of his political philosophy in “Yedioth Ahronoth,” the mass circulation newspaper he still writes for. His argument is that for years “the money,” which should have been spent for the general good on education, health, lower costs of living, affordable housing, law and order and narrowing the gap between rich and poor has been siphoned off by vested interest groups like Haredim, settlers and tycoons, who have been able to use their political clout to bleed successive governments dry. The answer, he says, is to set up a party like his that will use its clout to further the special interests of the shortchanged secular middle class. Critics dismiss this as apple pie ideology, vague on the major existential issues Israel faces and with no clear program on how to achieve its secular middle-class goals. Such “centrist” parties, the critics say, do not have sufficient ideological glue to hold them together and tend to be short-lived.
That has certainly been the case so far in Israel. Many of the so-called “centrist” parties have been one-term flashes in the pan. Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change burst onto the political scene with 15 seats in 1977. But within a year it had split into three and did not contest the subsequent election in 1981.
Yitzhak Mordechai’s Center Party started the 1999 election with around 20 seats in the polls, but finished with only six and by the next election in 2003 was already defunct. The elder Lapid’s Shinui won 15 seats in 2003 but disintegrated in the runup to the following election in 2006.
The one exception is Kadima, with 29 seats in 2006 and 28 in 2009. But it, unlike the others, was a party of government under Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and briefly Tzipi Livni. Now, however, Kadima too is showing signs of disintegration.
As it moves towards new leadership elections in late March, internal squabbling is threatening to tear it apart.
As for Lapid, the jury is still out. He could change the trajectory of Israeli politics in very significant ways, or fizzle out quickly without leaving a trace the way other centrist experiments have before. •