Yair Lapid, Israel’s Obama?

For those of you who don’t know much about Lapid, here are a few insights into the leader of Yesh Atid, who looks like he will be THE big player on the Israeli political scene. Lapid is kingmaker to King Bibi – and Netanyahu can not be feeling very good about this. But it could be worse for Bibi, Lapid is widely regarded as a likeable character, and has said repeatedly that he’s come to work, not unseat the prime minister.

A week after declaring his candidacy, Lapid wrote in his weekly column in Yedioth Ahronoth that he sought to represent the Israeli middle class. He said all Israelis should ask themselves, “Where’s the money?” – a catchphrase that he rode all the way to 19 mandates in these elections. He was referring to what he considers to be Israel’s distorted budgetary priorities that are biased against the middle class, and cited government stipends to haredim as well as the disproportionate funds received by the settlers. He’s not generally anti-settler, and even delivered his diplomatic platform speech in Ariel, the biggest Israeli settlement in the West Bank [and the one that many left wing Israeli artists boycott].

Lapid’s move from journalism into politics mirrors that of his late father, Tommy Lapid, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, a newspaper columnist and TV personality who started his own party and went on to become justice minister. Hating “religious people who use God to get money and power”, Tommy Lapid’s secular, Zionist Shinui party drew support mostly for its biting criticism of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment. The younger Lapid is not anti-haredi as the haredim like to portray him. He’s a Reform Jew, and he’s got some serious modern Orthodox religious figures in his list in the form of Rabbis Shay Piron and Dov Lipman, and Lapid himself has officiated at several civil weddings, not as a rabbi, of course, but as something in between. He’s quite knowledgeable about the Bible, and says his favorite character in it is Moses [for a secular politician he can pepper his talks with stories and anecdotes from the Tanach]. In terms of coalition pragmatics, Lapid’s plan to integrate the haredim into the army and workforce is much less drastic and far more gradual than the plan espoused by Kadima’s Yochanan Plesner and even the Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon. His basic proposal is to give the haredim 5 years to wean themselves off non-military or national service, while at the same time allowing men who now study in yeshiva to also work. His mantra to the haredim is: I’m not anti-haredi, but I’m anti-funding your lifestyle. A message that was a slam-dunk with the middle class in Israel.

Lapid  says he knows Israeli politicians well from covering politics for many years as a journalist, and he’s “not afraid of them.” I wonder though about his staying power: just how much fight does this former amateur boxer have in him? Because listening to his fighting words, especially against the current political system and pretty much every single serving Israeli member of Knesset [especially the religious MKs but not just them], I predict that Yair Lapid is going to get into the fight of his life – whether he joins the next coalition or stays in the opposition. And it’s going to be a long and ugly fight, so it’s just as well that Lapid said he’s going into politics for the long run. “It’s my second career and there won’t be a third,” he says.

He says he’s going to be a good, thorough, and professional politician, that he’s going to take it extremely seriously, and stuck to his promise of not recruiting any serving Israeli MK into his new party.

Like US President Barack Obama when he ran for his first term, Lapid is someone who is banking on a message of change; change in the political system, change in the nation’s fiscal and social priorities, change in the education system, change to the rules of national burden: he promises that he will work for seismic changes to the national fabric of Israeli society: the ultra-Orthodox must serve in the army or national service and they must join the workforce; the system of government must be changed [he rails against bloated governments with over 20 "ministers of nothing" - and it will be interesting to see if he sticks to this or joins a bloated government]; he says that some 70% of government decisions are not carried through due to bureaucracy and non-enforcement, and this is something that needs to change.

But like Obama, Lapid may be creating too many expectations, and might suffer from this down the line when he’s faced with the harsh realities of the Israeli political system, and the expected economic downturn and massive budget cuts the next government will have to implement. If he fails to deliver over the next four years, there will be plenty of parties in the Knesset that would love to bring him down a few notches. I’m sure also that Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman will be wanting to restore their waining political strength, and are going to want to limit Lapid’s achievements.

But for now, Yair Lapid is clearly enjoying himself. He’s enjoying “telling the truth” as opposed to politicians’ necessity of messaging and towing party lines. He’s enjoying motivating people and firing up the discontented secular middle class. In a country where the upper middle class is not feeling so “upper”, where the middle class is slipping into lower middle class, Lapid has become the middle class hero.

Like Obama’s first campaign, Lapid crowd-sourced his campaign,  on the Internet and on the streets. He has a cadre of highly efficient operators, some of whom he took with him when he left Channel 2 TV. His strategy was to gather thousands of volunteers [he has about 11,000 countrywide] – without promising them jobs or perks after the elections. Some of his closest advisers just dropped everything they were doing and joined him on his journey. His Facebook friends asked him questions, and he sat all night and answered them. I followed one of his staffer’s on Instagram, and I can tell you that Lapid held at least one parlor meeting every day somewhere in the country. Every day. At every one of these meetings people offered their advice and help, and Lapid’s team harvested them as volunteers. Yesh Atid has branches all over the country, and Lapid seems to have internalized the lessons of his father’s political failures with the mercurial Shinui party, which shot to 15 mandates and then crashed out of the Knesset after one term, largely because it had no grassroots base.

In 2012, Yair Lapid surrounded himself with young and hungry operators who recruited volunteers by the thousands. He set up working groups and committees for separate issues and he didn’t stick just to Tel-Aviv but literally crisscrossed the entire country [and even made a trip to the US to meet with progressive American Jews].

I’d say Lapid is branding himself into the ‘outsider promising change’ mold – a middle class hero is something to be. He keeps a photograph of his father Yosef Tommy Lapid meeting with Obama, whom the elder Lapid greatly admired. Yair Lapid often talks about his father, and the lessons the Jews need to learn from the Holocaust. Lapid is no dove, and he sees the two state solution as an absolute Israeli interest, not out of love for the Palestinians.

There’s no doubt that Lapid sees himself one day as prime minister; he knows it won’t be in these elections, but he’s willing to wait and learn. The question is whether he has the staying power and stomach for the gruelling Israeli political arena, and the extent the system will change him.

Oh, and by the way, Lapid gave his victory speech from a teleprompter [like Obama], the first Israeli politician to do so.

0 thoughts on “Yair Lapid, Israel’s Obama?

  1. Hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ve been trying not to focus on the frontman *too* much and see if the rest of the lineup/party platform has the right substance. We’ll see. Of course, the frontman is crucial.

  2. Lapid is just another wannabee celebrity-minus. No credentials (oh yes, a non-degree doesn’t count as long as it was revealed as a scum). No experience of running crowds, no credit of attracting intellectuals. Just another “why-not-mee” vacuum-filler. Will find his end in the same endless wastefield as his father did.

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