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Tough-talking secularist Lapid shakes up Israeli poll


Yair Lapid, a popular television personality turned centrist politician, has turned heads by leading his party to second place in Israel’s parliamentary poll. France 24 looks at the man set to play kingmaker in coalition-building talks.


Israel’s parliamentary election was supposed be a done deal even before polls opened, but Yair Lapid, a television host turned politician, stunned forecasters and the political establishment on Tuesday by claiming large support from voters.

As expected, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud-Yisrael Beitenu block claimed the most votes, taking 31 seats in parliament.

However, Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There's a Future) party, finished in second place with 19 seats and is now well positioned to enter a coalition government.

As a prominent writer and television personality, Lapid, 49, is used to the spotlight. But his new role as power broker could be a tough act for a man who spent much of the campaign portraying himself as the no-compromise, anti-establishment candidate.

In his father’s footsteps

Lapid’s centrist-secular position is closely modeled on his late father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, a Holocaust survivor who went on to serve as justice minister.

Born in Serbia before World War Two, Tommy Lapid became an influential Israeli radio and television presenter before turning to politics. As the head of the short-lived Shinui party, he was known for his staunch secularism and fierce opposition to religious encroachment in the public sphere.

Like his father, Yair Lapid has warned of the widening rift between Israel’s secular majority and the ultra-Orthodox minority. He said he would force the ultra-Orthodox to shoulder more of the state’s weight by making them take part in military service and the workforce.

Most Israelis are called up for military service when they turn 18. However, exceptions are made for most ultra-Orthodox men and women as well as Arab citizens.

Lapid began his career as a journalist during his own military service, writing for the IDF’s weekly newspaper Bamahane. He went on to work for several newspapers before becoming a prominent talk show host and news anchor.

With his chiseled looks and confident swagger, Lapid has also dabbled in television and film acting. In 2010 he published “Memories After My Death”, the story of his father’s life.

Safe on Palestinian question

While he has delivered tough talk aimed at religious “interest groups” in Israel, Lapid has a much more measured stance on the fate of the occupied Palestinian territories.

He has said he envisaged a separate Palestinian state, and that it was “irresponsible” to have abandoned the negotiating table since 2010. “What we’re doing is taking the most explosive conflict of our lives and just moving it to the next generation,” Lapid told Reuters.

However, although he favours negotiations for a Palestinian state, he has argued Israel should retain the large West Bank settlement blocs under its control and opposes any division of Jerusalem.

His views are even hawkish when it comes to Iran. He has said Israel could not allow Tehran to build a nuclear bomb, even if that meant bombing Iranian installations.

Ready to compromise?

A latecomer to politics –another trait he shares with his father- Lapid has fashioned himself as a defender of the everyday working man who is being taken advantage of by the system.

Addressing an English-speaking audience in Tel Aviv on December 13 he said he was in politics because there was “something fundamentally wrong” with the state, and told Reuters last year he was quitting his lucrative media career to become “a game-changer”.

As results of the vote emerged on Tuesday, Lapid urged Netanyahu to build as broad a team as possible, signalling for many observers his readiness to negotiate.

He has already proven to be a more inclusive and flexible secularist than his father. His candidate list counted an array of mayors and former officials, a former Jerusalem police chief and a fellow journalist, but also the modern rabbi Dov Lipman.

While Lapid has not ruled out joining his religious opponents in a Netanyahu coalition, he has set out conditions that may complicate the process. His ability to negotiate power –without selling out the voters he has energised– will be critical to moving forward.

Lapid says he witnessed his father’s centrist party “collapse in his own living room” years ago. It remains to be seen if, for once, he can avoid going down the same path.

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