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Why Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid?

Looking at the Israeli election’s big winner

Adam Chandler
January 22, 2013

On Friday, I took a flight to Georgia and, as fate would have it, I ended up next to a young mother–whose entire family was seated in the rows behind us. After hearing her yell back to her relatives a few times in Hebrew, I knew I was in the midst of the most Thomas Friedman moment possible and so, after some small talk and some sharing of chewing gum, I finally asked her who she was voting for in the election.

Her answer: Yair Lapid.

It was a strange conversation because she also expressed admiration for the leadership qualities of The Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett, whom she said had the spirit. So why Lapid, I asked? She cited the economy, his muscular approach to the peace process, and most of all, the energy he brings.

“Energy that would net about as many seats as Shas?” I countered.
“We’ll see,” she said.

Her reasoning sounded like pablum until this afternoon when supporters of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party made some serious noise at the polls. And no matter how the final numbers turn out, the biggest winner of the Israeli election is Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid in nothing short of a barnstorm.

Earlier this month, when we were putting together our Tablet guide to the Israeli elections, like many others, we had Lapid down as a notable subplot in the election drama, but not as the main story. (We were more concerned with Bennett’s spirit.) Here’s what we said about Lapid:

Yair Lapid, a 49-year-old telegenic former news anchor for Channel 2, is the head of the new centrist party Yesh Atid, which seems short on concrete solutions, and is relying on winning votes by pushing issues like governmental and economic reform. Lapid, the son of a prominent member of Knesset and justice minister Josef “Tommy” Lapid, has also capitalized on the issues of economic and social justice brought about by 2011’s J14 tent protests (see Etgar Keret’s piece for more on that). But he also has hawkish stances; Lapid claims he won’t join a coalition that refuses to return to negotiations with the Palestinians, opposes giving up Jerusalem in a peace deal, and wants both Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army.

That was two weeks ago, back when people were predicting that Yesh Atid would only pick up about ten seats. But as Aluf Benn wrote presciently:

Other candidates indulged in gimmicks, personality worship and empty slogans – Bennett’s red paratroopers’ boots, the meatballs in Shelly Yacimovich’s freezer and the “strong man” staring down from Netanyahu’s billboards. But Lapid had the benefit of enormous public exposure as a journalist, television presenter and celebrity bank spokesman, so the public knew who he was long before he entered politics.

This allowed him to focus his campaign on his detailed platform for making changes in the country, centered on smashing the ultra-Orthodox “society of students” and drafting Haredim into the army or forced employment (“civilian service” ); building 150,000 apartments; tweaking the system of government; and a diplomatic platform of a security-oriented leftist or soft-rightist, the type always preferred by centrist and undecided voters.

Amir Mizroch compares the appeal of Yair Lapid for Israelis to that of Barack Obama for Americans:

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 etc.

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.

The question now is whether or not Lapid will be facing these challenges from the inside of Netanyahu’s coalition or as the new leading voice of the opposition. We should know soon enough.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.