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Beppe Grillo, Italy’s Yair Lapid

The powerful Italian comedian-turned-politician is further proof that vacuous celebrity candidates are bad news

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Yair Lapid and Beppe Grillo. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Fabio Muzzi/AFP/Getty Images, Uriel Sinai/Getty Images, and Shutterstock)
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Why I Voted for Yair Lapid

The centrist’s simple but emotionally profound Zionism could lead to an Israel less at war with itself

Although it might seem unlikely, Israeli voters are no strangers to Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian-turned-politician who pulled off a huge upset by winning more than a quarter of the votes in the Italian elections held earlier this week. That’s because Israelis voted for Grillo last month—only then his name was Yair Lapid.

At first glance, the Italian wildman and the suave journalist appear to have little in common. Grillo, the child of middle-class parents, was shut out of Italian television for years, as the politicians he had accused of corruption didn’t much care for allowing him on the networks they controlled. Lapid, on the other hand, was for more than a decade one of Israel’s most popular TV personalities and is the son of a former minister and the close friend of many of the country’s political Brahmins. Grillo has shaggy curls and a beard; he shouts a lot. Lapid’s perfect thicket of hair is slicked back with gel, and he speaks in that sincere way people who work in front of cameras spend a lifetime fine-tuning.

But strip both politicians of their stylistic differences, and you have a new kind of menace: no-confidence men, voted in at times of economic crises by electorates that have grown bitterly disenchanted with politics. Both men portray themselves as mavericks, but they’re something far less glamorous: unschooled, impractical, and running the risk of plunging their countries into deeper uncertainty.

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In true Italian fashion, Grillo’s case is the more operatic. The chief priority of his organization, the Five Star Movement, is cleaning up notoriously corrupt Italian politics, in part by demanding that no politician convicted in a court of law be allowed to represent the people. But Grillo himself was found guilty of negligent homicide in 1980: He lost control of his car, slid into a ravine, and killed three of his passengers, a couple and their young son. This seems to matter very little to Grillo or his supporters.

An avowed ecologist, Grillo sold his yacht and his Ferrari only after the Italian media pointed out the enormous carbon footprints both vehicles produced. He’s also an avid detractor of institutional politics, having gone as far as holding his movement’s primaries entirely on the Internet and insisting that none of its elected representatives have any prior experience in governing. How such neophytes might rescue Italy from its current tribulations—the country’s young, to mention just one dismal bit of statistics, are currently experiencing a staggering unemployment rate of 36.5 percent—remains unstated; there’s nothing in the Five Star platform that even remotely resembles a coherent economic plan.

Lapid’s style is more muted, but his inherent contradictions are just as evident. He ran on a promise to force the ultra-Orthodox to join either the army or the work force, without ever really saying how he expected to address the immense challenges associated with such a move, such as how to prepare young men who had spent their life studying nothing but Torah to work in an increasingly modernized and technology-dependent economy, or how to reconcile their beliefs with the realities of military service, such as the presence of female instructors and colleagues. He promised to clean up Israel’s corrupt political system without once explaining why he had spent more than a few of his popular columns in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s highest-circulation daily, defending his friend Ehud Olmert, an emblem, if there ever was one, of that very same system. He vowed to ameliorate the strife of the middle class but made little of the fact that the leading tenet of his economic plan calls on the government to assume the onus of vetting any small business seeking loans. This, of course, is currently the responsibility of the private banks giving out loans; Lapid—formerly the chief celebrity paid endorser of Bank Ha’Poalim, Israel’s largest bank—is eager to use state money to minimize risk for his former employers and pass it on to tax payers.

At the very least, such considerable incoherencies should be enough to raise substantive doubts concerning both men’s ability to serve as electoral powerbrokers, a position Lapid and Grillo both currently enjoy. But the Israeli talking-head and the Italian insult-comic were both blessed with a platform previously unavailable to populists of their ilk. Grillo communicates with his voters exclusively through his massively popular blog, while Lapid has made groundbreaking use of Facebook, with more than 150,000 followers actively and enthusiastically sharing his posts. Online, free of the usual rhythms that govern the tango between politicians and the press, the two men have been free to speak their mind uninterruptedly and unencumbered by the usual scrutiny that comes with submitting to traditional interviews.

Their messages matched their medium of choice: Throughout their campaigns, Grillo and Lapid often sounded like the Internet itself, all fury and sound and style and little by way of rational argumentation. And, like memes, their calls to put an end to the old political order spread virally.

But slogans and gimmicks—Lapid playing Beatles songs on his guitar in front of adoring audiences, Grillo inventing a national holiday dedicated to telling politicians, with not a bit of decorum, what they might go ahead and do to themselves—are one thing. Deficits are another. Israel’s currently stands at nearly $10 billion, equivalent to 4.2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, double the number originally allotted for by the state’s budget. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz have sworn up and down that taxes would not be raised nor deep spending cuts enacted. It’s hard to imagine how either measure is avoidable en route to recovery. In Italy, too, any attempt at seriously discussing the looming economic catastrophe was nipped in the bud—Mario Monti, the economist who had served as prime minister since 2011 and whose austerity measures provided at least something of a reprieve to the moribund economy, finished a distant fourth in this week’s election.

More than a month after the elections, Israel still hasn’t a Cabinet in place, with Hail Mary stunts replacing serious stabs at coalition-building. Italy doesn’t look like it would fare much better, with no party apparently in a position to assemble a government. Such chaos is the result of many intricate processes, but it is also, in no small part, the work of Grillo and Lapid and of the multitudes of Italians and Israelis who voted them into office. And it’s not about to be resolved soon, at least not until both nations calm down, grow up, and realize that the business of government is about bottom lines, not punch lines or hairlines.

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PhillipNagle says:

Of course the real reason for the success of Lapid and Grillo is the total disgust people have with career politicians who care about little except getting reelected. In the US we have as a president a demagogue and panderer who took a country in enconomic difficulty and kept it there through mismanagement and wayward ideology. Can a celebrity do any worse.

“Mario Monti, the economist who had served as prime minister since 2011 and whose austerity measures provided at least something of a reprieve to the moribund economy”

Spare us your economic illiteracy. Italy does not have, nor has it ever had, too little spending taking place because the government was spending too little. Make no mistake, the economy is spending. If you question that, have you ever earned a dollar in your life that was not spent by anyone?

Now it is possible for deficits to spook investors such that interest rates rise which, with Italy’s large debt-to-GDP ratio, means that interest payments cannot be made without sacrificing basic operations. However, that is different the deficit crimping the economy. Also, even that problem for Italy is the result of Italy not controlling the currency that its debts are issued in, a problem which does not affect Israel which issues the bulk of its debt in Shekels. If you question that, look at the examples of Britain and Japan, as well as the effect of the ECB stepping in to purchase Italy’s bonds.

I’ll grant you Lapid’s political/governance naivete. However, his main theme was recognizing that there are contributions from both the religious community and the producing elements of society. That he may lack a program to implement that theme is a shortcoming. But to compare that to Grillo? Does Grillo offer anything besides protest?

“Mario Monti, the economist who had served as prime minister since 2011 and whose austerity measures provided at least something of a reprieve to the moribund economy”

Spare us your economic illiteracy. Italy does not have, nor has it ever had, too little spending taking place because the government was spending too little. Make no mistake, the economy is spending. If you question that, have you ever earned a dollar in your life that was not spent by anyone?

Now it is possible for deficits to spook investors such that interest rates rise which, with Italy’s large debt-to-GDP ratio, means that interest payments cannot be made without sacrificing basic operations. However, that is different the deficit crimping the economy. Also, even that problem for Italy is the result of Italy not controlling the currency that its debts are issued in, a problem which does not affect Israel which issues the bulk of its debt in Shekels. If you question that, look at the examples of Britain and Japan, as well as the effect of the ECB stepping in to purchase Italy’s bonds.

I’ll grant you Lapid’s political/governance naivete. However, his main theme was recognizing that there are contributions from both the religious community and the producing elements of society. That he may lack a program to implement that theme is a shortcoming. But to compare that to Grillo? Does Grillo offer anything besides protest?

Grathi says:

I’m sorry, but this article reveals a very unfortunate reading of what is happening in Israel. Yair Lapid has shown himself to be an extremely astute politician. Not only did he succeed in winning 19 seats for his party, in excess of Labor, Jewish Home, Shas and HaTnua, but then in turning this outcome into a significant victory far beyond the numbers.

Essentially what Lapid has done by forging an unbreakable bond with Jewish Home’s Bennett almost immediately after the election is to force Likud for the first time in a generation to choose between the majority of Israelis and their needs which they have been mostly ignoring and the needs of a small minority whose necessity to the political coalitions has enabled them to gain resources far beyond their fair share and without giving back as much as they receive.

What, precisely, is wrong with this? Leibovitz seems to think it leads to “uncertainty” and a loss of perspective on the “bottom line.”

It actually doesn’t. If there’s uncertainty, it’s only because Netanyahu isn’t yet willing to give up on the status quo even though the results of the elections require that he do so. Also, the bottom line isn’t served by keeping a million Haredim out of mainstream Israel and the workforce. On the contrary, Stanley Fischer has been sounding the alarm on this issue for years.

The fact is that Israel’s middle class voted that it has had enough and wants a real change and not more of the same. We know this is not just a temporary change of heart because a recent survey shows that if an election were held now, Lapid’s party would win 30 seats from its current 19 and Likud-Beiteinu only 22 seats down from their previous 38 seats and even down from this election’s 31 seats. Jewish Home would increase its count from 12 to 15. I would wager that Linvi’s HaTnua party would also disappear after she sold out to Netanyahu recently.

Obviously the Israeli public sees something very different than Leibovitz. Apparently they see, for the first time in decades, two principled leaders of principled parties who are seeking to make real changes in the government and in the way the country is run and aren’t interested in cushy jobs, cars, pensions or manipulating the treasury and the IDF for the advantage of a small but self-serving minority. The Israelis who pay taxes and send their kids to the army are finally getting a chance to call the shots. You know what they want? They want a shared burden. They want fair play.

If the “instablity” that Leibovitz thinks is so bad for Israel plays out without Netanyahu capitulating to the demands of Lapid and Bennett who together represent more Israelis than Likud, then Israel will go back to another election and it will have a new and very savvy PM by the name of Yair Lapid who will be leading a very stable new government representing the desires of a majority of Israelis…and almost certainly with a new Treasury Minister by the name of Bibi Netanyahu (if Leibovitz is so worried about the bottom line).

We can only hope and dream that Netanyahu fails to meet Lapid and Bennett’s demands over the next several days.

By the way, can I be hired to write political articles about Israel for Tablet? I promise to provide captivating content that also happens to be, um, on point… ;)

you might have mentioned Grillo’s antipathy towards Israel and America:

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/165724#.UTAkpTdhD1k

ArthurWeiss says:

This item was SO politically biased that I wonder what planet Liel Leibovitz is on and also his dishonesty in failing to reveal his real political sympathies.

For example, Lapid’s promise relating to the ultra-Orthodox entering the workforce and army is also shared by Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) party and is wanted by the majority of Israelis. The only reason it hasn’t happened yet or in previous parliaments is because of the previous governments being forced to cosy up to Haredi politicians that believe that they can take from tax-payers and give nothing back.

Leibovitz’s paragraph about getting the ultra-Orthodox to join the army or workforce being a challenge because they’ve spent their lives studying Torah is nonsense. Almost all Israeli youth spend their lives prior to entering the army studying. It’s called school.

At the age of 18, most – apart from the ultra-Orthodox – leave study to enter the army. After their army service many choose to continue studying in university. Some combine study and army – at Hesder yeshivot. Why should a Haredi boy be any different at the age of 18. The fact he won’t have played on a computer or learned English or physics won’t stop him becoming an infantryman or cook or many other non-skilled army roles. Perhaps the experience would teach him how to make more out of his life rather than parasitically expecting the working Israeli to fund him. It would require the army to adapt slightly – with more Orthodox units (complying with Haredi norms). However these already exist so it is a question of numbers and not the principle that is the issue.

The same principles apply to Haredi girls too. Israel needs nursing auxilaries, hospital cleaners and many other support roles that a girl without a secular education could easily fulfil.

THAT is what Lapid wants and what would be right for the ultra-Orthodox too – so that they become productive citizens. That is also a Jewish value. Rambam and many other Rabbonim saw it as a disgrace to Torah to study without the means to support yourself, forcing others to give you charity.

If Leibovitz removed his blinkers he’d see that encouraging the Haredim to enter the workforce would do marvels to Israel’s deficit. Instead it’s articles like this that perpetuate Israel’s problems. They don’t solve them.

AriShavit says:

A half-a** political hatchet job is the last thing I thought I would see in Tablet …

Liel, it’s fine if you don’t like Lapid. Feel free to disagree with his policies to your heart’s desire. But if your argument boils down to “he doesn’t give specifics for difficult policy proposals” then you’ve really only described every f*cking politician in the world. When was the last time a U.S. president outline the specific details to a tax reform plan? When was the last time Bibi laid out a plan for peace instead of laying out empty rhetoric? This has nothing to do with Lapid being a celebrity, and everything to do with him having political advisors.

Oh, and in all the blustering you forgot to mention in his description that he’s a citizen proposing things other citizens think are long overdue. Put it somewhere between “unschooled” and the foreboding “will cause the end of israel” b.s.

AriShavit says:

how is his disdain or love for israel relevant to this article?

AriShavit says:

The part about obama causing the country “enconomic difficult” is priceless. It’s almost like you live in a world where George Bush and Republicans don’t exist.

PhillipNagle says:

Please read again.

AriShavit says:

“In the US we have as a president” = present.

In the US we have a FORMER president” = past.

“In the US we HAD a president” = past.

Exactly where am I mistaken that your language refers to President Obama?

AriShavit says:

Oh wow. You actually believe that saying both men are new celebrity politicians makes Liel a self-hating Jew? Are you kidding?

Both have grey or greying hair. Does that comparison make me a self-hating Jew?

PhillipNagle says:

“….who took a country in economic difficulty” obviously refers to the situation existing, ie the situation he got from Bush.

ajweberman says:

Its an invidious comparison. There is no insight here. Everyone knows they are both celebrities. If that is where the similarities end why dwell upon it?

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Beppe Grillo, Italy’s Yair Lapid

The powerful Italian comedian-turned-politician is further proof that vacuous celebrity candidates are bad news

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