Israel’s new political star acclaimed as ‘a man of the people’

January 25, 2013 

— Israelis have long valued television celebrity Yair Lapid as the country’s everyman, and this week they made him one of the most powerful political figures in Israel’s next government.

His carefully coiffed salt-and-pepper hair and easy charisma have earned Lapid a special status in Israel as a national heartthrob. But it was his respected political lineage and his career as an acclaimed journalist that drew voters and catapulted the untested politician into the leadership of the second-largest party in the Israeli Parliament.

“He gave voice to the concerns of the vast middle class in Israel,” Mark Mellman, an American Democratic pollster and Lapid’s senior campaign strategist, told McClatchy. “It isn’t easy to make the transition from journalist to politician. But he became a voice of change and a breath of fresh air by standing strong on issues.”

Lapid waged a campaign that borrowed from American-style politics – Mellman has been a pollster for former President Bill Clinton and Senate Democrats – but was also somewhat counterintuitive to what has guided Israeli politics for so long.

His emphasis was less on the issues concerned with security threats, like the struggle with the Palestinians – Lapid favors peace talks – or Iran’s quest for nuclear power and more on social justice and the rising inequalities in Israeli society. His campaign also capitalized on the widespread use of social media to get out his message.

Lapid has demanded an end to the automatic military exemption for thousands of ultra-Orthodox youths, and an end to the rising taxes on Israel’s middle class. His party included a broad range of public figures, all of them proving, for the first time, that an Israeli politician did not need to focus on security issues such as Iran to become “electable.”

Political analysts said there was no doubt that Lapid will be kingmaker in the next Israeli government. He and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who won re-election, but in an unexpected, underwhelming way – met for more than two hours Thursday. They likely will form a coalition to increase their clout in the Parliament.

Netanyahu reportedly already has offered the suddenly influential Lapid his choice of two of the most important Cabinet portfolios: foreign affairs or finance.

Lapid, however, has set a higher bar. There are rumors that Israel’s next government could exclude – for the first time in many years – the ultra-Orthodox parties.

“We will fight for equality in national responsibilities with everyone serving (in the army) and everyone working,” Lapid said in a campaign speech a few weeks ago.

He has worried that Netanyahu’s longstanding political alliance with the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party has led to its dominance of several key ministries, including social welfare and education, and to preferential treatment being given to the ultra-Orthodox sector of Israeli society.

In earlier interviews, Lapid also had promised that he would join Netanyahu’s government only if his centrist party was able to moderate the more hawkish factions within Likud, Netanyahu’s political power base.

Lapid has said that a “real, significant” peace process must be launched immediately with Palestinians with the aim of achieving a “livable divorce rather than an unhappy marriage.”

“He says things that make sense to the average Israeli,” said Shoshanah Baruch, a 42-year-old Israeli teacher who said she voted for Lapid. “I’m not against the settlements because I’m political, but because they drain money away from people like me who live in Tel Aviv and just want to have normal lives. For so many years I would listen to political messages and just think they didn’t understand me or my needs, and then he came along.”

The sense that Lapid is a “man of the people” helped drive his campaign, said Mellman.

As a new party, Yesh Atid – which translates to “There is a Future” – received a fraction of the campaign funding and television time the established Israeli parties received. Instead, he ran his campaign on Facebook and Twitter, telling voters his views on issues ranging from health care to the cost of his morning cereal.

In a speech earlier this week, Lapid told his supporters that those who voted for Yesh Atid “voted for the sake of normalcy, for trust between people, for the right to education and housing. . . . Today the people chose to say ‘no’ to the politics of hatred and fear. They said ‘no’ to extremism.”

In the crowds this week, some were chanting, “He’s a man of the people” and “One of us.”

A party adviser who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media recounted a story from years ago, when Lapid hosted his father, famed Israeli politician Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, as a guest on his talk show.

The older Lapid was a Holocaust survivor who went on to serve as an influential justice minister. The two were in the midst of discussing the elder Lapid’s rise to power and the shifts in Israel’s political history when Lapid turned to his father and asked, “But what is it to be Israeli?”

His father simply answered, “You.”

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: sfrenkel@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @sheeraf

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