Yesh Atid is change. Yesh Atid is more of the same. Yesh Atid is selflessness. Yesh Atid is egos. Yesh Atid is everything. Yesh Atid is empty. What exactly is Yesh Atid?
It is a question that has been asked since before Yesh Atid had a name (which translates to “There is a Future”) or was even registered as a political party. Back when the movement was just Yair Lapid, announcing he was leaving the world of journalism and pursuing politics — an earthquake, pundits called it then — many asked just what he stood for, but polls nonetheless showed him becoming a force in the next Knesset even before he uttered a word about his platform.
Today, matters are less sanguine for the party — Yesh Atid is expected to get just 6-8 seats in the January vote, down from the double-digit predictions it once enjoyed, a self-sustained casualty of the center-left split — but are also far more clear, if not far off from people’s expectations: Yesh Atid is, or at least is trying hard to be, a balance. Yesh Atid, as far as anybody can guess, is a centrist party of political featherweights attempting to capitalize on popular anger against a number of ill-served issues, but also trying to harness the electorate’s natural tendency toward a moderate center.
The party’s platform is a centrist pick-and-choose of decidedly unsacred cows: education reform, making peace with Israel’s neighbors, the housing crisis, fighting political corruption, changing the system of government, and most importantly for its leader, fighting for a true universal draft.
Lapid is not alone in trying to claim the moderate crown; he’s in the running with the amazing shrinking Kadima, Labor, Tzipi Livni’s new Hatnua party, and at least in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dreams, parts of the Likud-Beytenu alliance.
According to Hebrew University of Jerusalem political scientist Prof. Avraham Diskin, the center is a natural political home for most voters and is the perfect place to be for a budding politician who wants to make an impact, and quickly.
“There are many centrists and there have been many studies in Israel that prove,” he said, “that the center is a good place to be.… Even [Labor party head Shelly] Yachimovich is playing the center.”
It may be that Lapid beat them all to it. Decades ago, while Livni was handing out flyers for Likud, Kadima head Shaul Mofaz was making a name as a rough-and-tumble IDF stalwart and Yachimovich was sending her anti-establishment diatribes over the airwaves as an Israel Radio broadcaster, Lapid was watching a centrist party come together and fall apart in his living room, as he has reportedly put it. (The Times of Israel made several attempts to speak to Lapid, but was unsuccessful).
Lapid’s father Yosef, better known as Tommy, also made the leap from journalism to politics, helming the moderately successful Shinui, or Change, party, which took up the center in the Knesset for a few years before falling apart in 2006.
While this was happening, Yair Lapid was becoming one of the country’s most popular journalists, known for his fair-minded exposes on Channel 2’s Friday night newsmagazine, and his ability to expertly lasso the country’s zeitgeist in his newspaper columns, first in Maariv and then in Yedioth Ahronoth.
When he announced his career switch, in early 2012, the news made the front page of nearly every Israeli daily and was welcomed as a breath of fresh air in a political scene quickly becoming stale. Livni and Yachimovich, now Lapid’s rivals after being unable to link up with him in the pre-campaign meat market, both praised his decision, with Livni saying that more people should join politics in order to “make positive change in Israel,” according to a report in Haaretz at the time.
Lapid has generally been seen as anti-ultra-Orthodox — his father was famously so — and has thus gone to great lengths to seem welcoming to the religious community, even while making the issue of a universal draft into the IDF, which united a large majority of Israelis, a core component of his campaign.
To that end, he brought two Orthodox, albeit progressive, rabbis onto his list to try to temper anti-religious claims, making Rabbi Shai Piron, the head of Petah Tikva’s network of yeshivas and a prominent education booster and anti-rabbinate activist, his No. 2.
Also on his list, though down at No. 17, is Rabbi Dov Lipman, a Washington-area native (and Times of Israel blogger) who is entering the national fray after making a name for himself in Beit Shemesh for fighting extremist ultra-Orthodox elements in the city.
He and the Yesh Atid head first “worked together” when Lapid, then still at Channel 2, covered Lipman’s fight against Haredi men who had begun a spitting campaign against national religious girls near their neighborhood in the tense city. Lipman denies that the event was the genesis of their political relationship, but praised Lapid for making the piece anti-extremist and not anti-Haredi.
Lipman, who also acts as Yesh Atid’s face to the English-speaking community, says the party is the only one “addressing the country’s burning issues,” and adds that his inclusion on the list is proof that Lapid and the party intend to work with the ultra-Orthodox community in coming to an equitable solution regarding the military draft, which Haredim, along with non-Bedouin Arabs, have traditionally avoided.
“I’m part of this and the goal is to show that you can do both together,” he told The Times of Israel last week. “You have to do service but there’s ways to work within the Haredi community.”
Yesh Atid’s plan calls for the ultra-Orthodox to be given five years to get jobs or join up, during which the army will create the necessary framework for the military to draft the former yeshiva students or put them in national service.
Though the national service option is part of the party’s agenda, a recent plan approved by the government to give 1,300 ultra-orthodox military deferrals to join the civilian service was slammed by Lapid, who filed a petition for an injunction against the decision with the High Court on Thursday.
The move is likely calculated to separate Yesh Atid from the rest of the center-left pack on the popular issue, but according to Arye Carmon of the Israel Democracy Institute, it is Lapid’s personality that will prop up the party, overcoming his “empty rhetoric.”
“Instead of dealing with issues, we have been dealing with personalities,” said Carmon, who heads the Jerusalem-based think-tank. Carmon says Lapid’s popularity does not stem from any concrete agenda, but from the rise in the politics of personalities that began in 1996 with Israel’s first direct election of a prime minister, a method that was quickly abandoned.
“Direct elections by the two major parties have almost completely destroyed electoral politics,” he said, adding that two decades ago Lapid would have had to join a party and rise up through the ranks like any other schmo who wants to be minister.
‘Instead of dealing with issues, we have been dealing with personalities’
According to Diskin, the strong tie between Lapid’s personality and his party may spell its downfall, as it has for other centrist parties built around big names, such as the Center Party, headed by former IDF chief Amnon Lipkin Shahak, which took only six seats in 1999 before falling off the map.
“Many such parties are not really cohesive, they are around a person,” he said, adding that winding up in the opposition can be a death sentence for such a faction. “Once they are not needed, they don’t get the [ministry] job, and the fact that these parties are not too cohesive causes them to fall apart.”
Lipman rejected the claim that the party was a Lapid vanity project, saying Yesh Atid is here to stay and not a flash in the pan, evidenced by him sticking around despite the low chance he’ll make it into the Knesset.
“It’s clearly agenda-driven. The issues are out there and now we can argue the facts. To say we’re not agenda-driven doesn’t make much sense,” he said. “Yair himself saw a party fall apart and a lot of steps were taken over here to make sure it doesn’t happen to Yesh Atid. We are all in it for the long haul.”
Lipman also rejected criticism that the party’s list, made up of less-than-famous mayors and activists, a judo champ and one former Shin Bet security service chief, was ill-prepared for politics, saying they were all committed and experienced and were in fact better suited for the task since they had given up their careers to selflessly work for the betterment of the state.
To Lipman and the party’s other boosters, who number in the thousands, Yesh Atid is about unity, bringing together the disparate factions of Israeli society to work together toward one common goal. It’s about changing the status quo and giving fresh faces a shot at fixing the country’s ills.
To critics, the party is about egotism and is seen as a manifestation of the inability of the center-left’s various personalities to join up to create a super-faction that could challenge Netanyahu. It’s a party of empty rhetoric that will make little noise in the Knesset.
It seems obvious that Lapid and a number of his cohorts will enter the halls of power. But how Yesh Atid will shape the country in the years to come, if at all, is as much a mystery as the future the party claims to be fighting for.