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An Israeli Political Newcomer, Who May Soon Be An Insider

Yair Lapid and his new political party, There Is a Future, got the second-most votes in Israel's election on Tuesday.
Oliver Weiken
EPA /Landov
Yair Lapid and his new political party, There Is a Future, got the second-most votes in Israel's election on Tuesday.

Israel's surprisingly close parliamentary elections Tuesday have brought political attention to a man accustomed to the bright lights of television: former journalist and media personality Yair Lapid.

His Yesh Atid — or There Is a Future — Party got 19 seats in parliament, making it the second-largest voting bloc behind Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, which won 31 seats.

Watching a video of Lapid talking to English-speaking voters in Tel Aviv last month, you can almost feel the audience fall under his spell. Prowling the stage in a black T-shirt and sport coat, the 49-year-old former TV anchor warns the mostly young crowd that Israel's high cost of living is taking away their future.

"I have some bad news. You will never have an apartment," he says to laughter.

That's because they will never be able to afford a mortgage in Israel's out-of-control real estate market. The crowd seems to instantly see that this is what they should be worried about.

He moves on to another threat: the rapid growth in the number of Orthodox Jews, who don't serve in the army and often rely on government support so they can study the Torah.

"And this will be the end of Israel. No country on earth can survive if 50 percent or more of the population are not participating, neither in defense or in the economy," he says.

Lapid is adept at delivering dire messages like this, with a cool demeanor that says, "I can fix it."

Responsibility To Pick Up Political Mantle

His father, Tommy Lapid, survived the Holocaust, moved to Israel and became a journalist, then turned the Shinui Party into a major force in parliament in 2003. But Shinui quickly disappeared. Longtime friend and author Amnon Dankner says that Yair Lapid felt a responsibility to pick up the mantle.

"Enter political life and try to do his best to ... save the country," Dankner says.

Dankner says Lapid also decided to learn from his father's mistakes. Tommy Lapid was known for being passionate and not so diplomatic in his efforts to reduce the power of Orthodox Judaism in this country.

"Yair is not given to these moods of hatred, it's not to his taste," Dankner says.

Dankner says he believes Lapid's cooler approach won the trust of voters concerned about voting for a newly minted candidate with no voting record. He has billed himself as an outsider, ready to clean house.

Last-Minute Surge

Just days ago, Lapid was expected to make a weaker showing and was overshadowed by another new face: right-wing upstart Naftali Bennett.

But polling stops in Israel four days before the election. In that short space of time, voters may have jumped to Lapid out of concern that a right-wing victory was coming, says Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute.

"They felt like Bennett was going to be strong, Netanyahu was going to have the same old coalition with the religious forces strong within and outside his party, and people maybe wanted to balance it with Lapid," Rahat says.

Even before final returns were in, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave Lapid a call. His participation may be indispensable to building a stable coalition, now that Israel's parliament appears evenly divided between right- and left-wing blocs. Until now, Lapid has tiptoed away from association within either end of the political spectrum, as in a recent online interview with The Jerusalem Post.

"We are not a center-left party, we are a center-center party," he said. "We are the party of the Israeli middle class."

Lapid announced Wednesday night that he would not join left-wing parties seeking to build an anti-Netanyahu bloc. So this outsider may be on his way to a view from the inside.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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