New Israeli political star champions middle- class

January 23, 2013

Yair Lapid, the charismatic former news anchor whose meteoric rise in Israel’s election Tuesday has made him the key to the country’s next ruling coalition, rode to success by tapping into a wave of social discontent that could define the agenda of the next Israeli government.

Lapid favors a return to negotiations with the Palestinians, but that was not what won him votes. His electoral appeal stemmed mostly from his image as a champion of Israel’s struggling middle class. The focus of his centrist party’s campaign was what many secular Israelis see as the inequity of exempting tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews from the draft so they can pursue religious studies with government stipends.

Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, which won 19 seats and unexpectedly became the second largest in Israel’s next parliament, owes its success to people like Efrat Shemesh. The 35-year-old teacher and mother of three said she had voted for Lapid in the hope that he would “weigh in on social issues” in the next administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We want a better future for our children, affordable housing and better education,” she said. “And too much is going to the ultra-Orthodox at the expense of secular people.”

Her complaints are shared by many Israelis, for whom worries about making ends meet — not peace with the Palestinians — were a decisive factor in a vote that carried echoes of the social justice protests that swept Israel 11 / 2 years ago.


Israel’s parliamentary election results (The Washington Post/Source: Staff reports)

Lapid, a 49-year-old former newspaper columnist and host of TV talk shows and news programs, has followed in the footsteps of his father, Yosef Lapid, a journalist who entered politics at the head of the staunchly secular Shinui party, leading it to electoral success and joining the government of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The younger Lapid established Yesh Atid, or There Is a Future, just nine months ago and quickly built a following among mostly secular Israelis drawn to his plainspoken messages.

In a typical pitch in one of his TV ads, Lapid’s image was projected upside-down as he announced that “everything is backward.”

“Those who serve in the army are not taken care of, while those who don’t serve are given money. Isn’t that backward?” Lapid said. “Those who pay the most taxes get the least education from the state. It’s all backward. The middle class, those who work the hardest, will never be able to buy an apartment. Those who don’t work get apartments at half-price. I’m telling you, it’s backward. So I ask, isn’t it about time to turn things around?”

Although he has put domestic issues first, Lapid says Israel cannot allow a continued impasse in peace efforts, and he suggests that they should be revived along the lines of previous Israeli proposals.

He favors a return to talks with the Palestinians to reach a two-state solution to the conflict but says the deal should leave large Jewish settlements in the West Bank under Israel’s sovereignty, with possible land swaps. To drive that point home, he launched his election campaign in Ariel, a large settlement town deep in the northern West Bank.

Like Netanyahu, Lapid rejects ceding East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek as the capital of a future state, and asserts that the entire city should remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Although Lapid could make a resumption of peace negotiations a condition for joining Netanyahu’s next government, the presence of rightist partners in the coalition could leave little leeway for concessions in such talks, particularly on building in West Bank settlements, which Lapid endorses for purposes of “natural growth.”

But Lapid’s main call has been for “equal sharing of the burden,” in which the ultra-Orthodox would join the workforce and serve a stint of military or civilian national service as other Israelis do. The demand has become a rallying cry for many people who are resentful of what they see as preferential treatment gained through a disproportionate influence of politicians from religious blocs.

Carmel Cohen, 18, said she voted Tuesday for the first time and chose Lapid’s party because “I have to go to the army in a month, while the ultra-Orthodox are getting stipends.”

Lapid’s direct manner and outsider status appealed to many young Israelis disenchanted with the rhetoric of mostly familiar political faces competing in the campaign.

“There was something fresh and young about him, and I wanted to give a chance to something new,” said Rachel Zohar, 35, a bagel cafe manager who voted for Lapid. “He’s not condescending, he understands us, and he gets it. We’ve tried Netanyahu already.”

Lapid will have a harder time translating his campaign pledges into action in a government that economic experts say will have to institute painful budget cuts and tax hikes to cope with a ballooning deficit.

At the moment, however, he holds the key to the next governing coalition, with Netanyahu dependent on his partnership to secure a parliamentary majority. In a nod to Lapid’s concerns, Netanyahu swiftly declared in a post-election speech that he would make “equal sharing of the burden” a priority of his next administration.

Lapid called for “the broadest possible government that will include moderate forces from the right and the left,” though he did not specify which partners he preferred. He also alluded to his party’s demand for a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, warning that “we are facing a world that could ostracize us because of the diplomatic deadlock.”

“Whoever voted today for Yesh Atid,” he said, “voted for normalcy.”

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