Yair Lapid—Will He Take Down Netanyahu?

by September 2022
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Photo credit: REUTERS

I am the man of tomorrow who also lives the past. In my lineage are Moses, Jesus, Rambam, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Woody Allen, Bobby Fischer, Bob Dylan, Franz Kafka, Herzl and Ben Gurion. I am part of a tiny and persecuted minority, who influenced the world more than any other people. While other peoples invested their energy in blood and fire, we had the wisdom to invest in wisdom. I am a Zionist.

–Yair Lapid, Ynet, January 30, 2009

To Be Yair Lapid

On November 1, Yair Lapid will cast his vote at the ballot box in the posh north Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv, hoping for the stars to align just right to allow him to carry on with the job of prime minister (a position he currently holds in a caretaker government). Lapid has waited for this moment for ten years, since entering Israeli politics in 2012, shortly after the massive social protests over the cost of housing in Israel.

>> A Profile in Policy: Read more from Ksenia Svetlova

Back in 2012 one could hardly imagine that Lapid would one day achieve his proclaimed goal of becoming prime minister. The gap between his media persona—television talk show host, newspaper columnist, author, and songwriter—and the public image of a serious politician seemed too wide. It would have been easier for many Israelis at the time to imagine Lapid taking Hollywood by storm rather than moving into the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. Lapid, however, was determined to make the switch from celebrity to prime minister. He aimed high.

In 2013 Lapid and his party gained 19 mandates, a major surprise, but the government in which he served as minister of finance under Prime Minister Netanyahu was short-lived, and soon he found himself in the barren fields of the opposition for four long years. His support shrunk to 11 seats. The media ridiculed him as an ambitious neophyte “flavor of the season.” Yet Lapid used wisely his time in the opposition, building bases of support on the ground and forming ties with leaders abroad, acting as a shadow minister of foreign affairs at a time when Israel under Netanyahu was growing distant from the Democrats in the US and from major center-left European politicians as well.

During the 20th Knesset, between 2015–2019, when Lapid was a fellow member of the opposition with me (I was a member of the Zionist Union, which led the opposition at the time), partisan divisions in Israel became sharper. It often seemed that the Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister at the time, was unstoppable. Lapid focused his efforts on reinforcing the center of the Israeli political map in every sense of this word. Once in an interview he admitted to be “an extreme centrist” and was dubbed by some as the “Israeli Emanuel Macron.”

Then in May 2021, after four excruciating rounds of elections in three years, Lapid allied with right-wing Naftali Bennett and—with the help of unlikely and improbable partners like right-wing Avigdor Lieberman, Islamist Mansour Abbas, and left-wing Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz—managed to broker a coalition government, after Netanyahu failed time after time. Lapid had regained former levels of support with 17 mandates. He gave up the premiership to coalition partner Bennett, who held just seven seats. For many Israelis, this was a sign of political maturity, patience, and even altruism—qualities seldom found in politicians across the globe. It was now clear to all that Lapid was not just another momentary blip on the Israeli political scene.

“What Is Israeli to You?”

Before he entered politics in 2012, when he was juggling several gigs—acting in tv commercials, writing columns at Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, and hosting the most popular talk show of the time—Lapid used to pose the same question to each guest who appeared on his show: “What is Israeli to you?” Media critics and commentators used to mock him for this corny survey of the Israeli psyche. Lapid knew better, being the son of journalist-turned-politician and Holocaust survivor Tommy Lapid, who, during the late 1990s, had also created a secular, centrist party, “Shinui” or Change. Years later Lapid the son would integrate what he had learned about Israelis from his father and from his career as a journalist and synthesize it into a political ideology of the “extreme center.” Seeing Israel being torn apart by rival ideologies and political battles, becoming a divided society of warring tribes, he was looking for a centrist promised land that would include secular Israelis across the political spectrum from left to right, promising to take care of the middle class and fight corruption.

Many Israelis, including the writer of these lines, were skeptical that there was such a thing as a political center, a consensus approach to the big problems facing the society from the Israeli–Palestinian conflict to housing prices and climate change. Lapid is often criticized for offering superficial, simplistic solutions to complicated issues and problems. He seems to support a two-state solution while insisting on the indivisibility of Jerusalem. He is ready to create a coalition with Israeli Arab parties, including anti-Zionist members of the Joint Arab List, while speaking passionately about the dangers of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. On one issue, Lapid began his political career as an outspoken extremist—reducing the state subsidies for ultra-Orthodox Jews and including them in the army draft. He was depicted in ultra-Orthodox circles as an outcast and their leaders still argue that joining a Lapid coalition would be impossible. Since his clashes with the ultra-Orthodox in 2013–2014, he has softened his approach to them.

Despite his constant search for the center and avoidance of sharp edges, Lapid is no fan of the status quo. The self-styled “reform government” that he brokered in 2021 made changes in diverse areas from kosher food regulations to foreign relations with Europe. Whether any of these policies will survive the next elections remains to be seen.

The Right Man for the Job?

After ten years in politics, Yair Lapid has matured as a politician and gained respect and appreciation for his persistence, negotiating skills, and humility. For many Israelis, the achievements of his short-lived “reform government” remain controversial. For instance, the right-wing accuses him of bringing in an Islamist Arab party to the ruling coalition and “succumbing to its interests.” Looking toward the November 1 elections, one can be certain of just two things: there will be another election after it (perhaps sooner than later); and Yair Lapid, who made a promise ten years ago not to return to his previous life as a celebrity but to dedicate himself entirely to politics in order to change Israel, will be there, solid as a rock, waiting for his time to come.

>> A Profile in Policy: Read more from Ksenia Svetlova

Ksenia Svetlova
Columnist
Ksenia Svetlova is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya) and a director of the program on Israel–Middle East relations at Mitvim Institute. She is a former Knesset member. @KseniaSvetlova
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