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Yair Lapid’s unlikely rise from TV star to Israel’s incoming prime minister

The 58-year-old Tel Aviv native has had a turbulent decade-long political career, from Netanyahu’s finance minister to his key rival

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the incoming interim prime minister, sits in the Knesset, during voting to dissolve parliament for new elections, on June 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the incoming interim prime minister, sits in the Knesset, during voting to dissolve parliament for new elections, on June 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Some in Israel dismissed Yair Lapid as just another media star when the former news anchor, ad pitchman, and soap actor launched his bid for political power a decade ago.

But the 58-year-old, who is set to become the Jewish state’s next prime minister at midnight, has a history of surpassing expectations during a political career that, even by Israeli standards, has been turbulent.

Almost a decade ago, with his newly formed centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, he was not immediately taken seriously as a heavyweight or challenger in the lead-up to an election in January 2013.

But Lapid’s hometown of Tel Aviv had been rattled by protests against the surging cost of living. He and his party focused their campaign on Israel’s struggling middle class, asking why so few were prospering from the country’s economic growth. It worked.

Yesh Atid, whose leader had regularly featured on lists of Israel’s most desirable men, shocked pundits by finishing second to the right-wing incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lapid was motivated by public service, not personal brand enhancement, said Dov Lipman, who was elected to parliament on Yesh Atid’s 2013 slate, its first.

Yesh Atid leader and incoming prime minister Yair Lapid as a young journalist in 1997. (Screenshot: Youtube)

“He didn’t need any of this. His finances were set and he had fame,” Lipman, who has since left politics and the party, told AFP. “He got involved in this because he really felt that things need to change in Israel.”

Challenges

Lapid’s later father Yosef aka Tommy, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, had also left the media to join politics. Lapid’s mother is a writer.

Following the 2013 polls, Lapid joined a Netanyahu-led coalition, had a rocky term as finance minister, joined the opposition in 2015 and became a key player seeking to oust Netanyahu.

That protracted effort ultimately succeeded in June 2021, when Lapid crafted an unlikely coalition of hawks, centrists, left-wingers, and Arab Islamists that ended Netanyahu’s 13-year tenure.

He clinched the deal by offering the prime minister’s job to Naftali Bennett, whose nationalist Yamina party had fared far worse in the polls than Yesh Atid.

Lapid himself became foreign minister.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) attend a departure ceremony for an Israeli delegation flying out to set up a field hospital in Ukraine at Ben Gurion Airport, on March 21, 2022. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

When Bennett announced last week that this coalition was no longer tenable, triggering Israel’s fifth election in less than four years, he said he would honor his power-sharing deal with Lapid, who will serve as prime minister and foreign minister of a caretaker government.

As they did when he launched his political career, rising prices have again emerged as a challenge before he assumes the premiership.

“We need to tackle the cost of living,” he said, days before he was to become Israel’s 14th prime minister.

In December, an authoritative global ranking named Tel Aviv as the world’s most expensive city.

Lapid then listed the geopolitical challenges that may dominate his time in office, including Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group.

It is unclear how long Lapid will hold the prime minister’s chair. Ostensibly he may only do so for several months, until a fresh government is formed following the next election, which is set for November 1. But the past four years of political instability have shown that interim governments can stay on for far longer than expected, and failure to reach a clear resolution in the upcoming vote could keep the Yesh Atid leader in power for a while yet.

‘Inspirational’

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lapid’s positions have been described as broadly centrist, with some right-leaning tendencies.

Unlike Bennett, he favors direct talks with the Palestinians on a two-state solution, but has voiced doubt about the Palestinian desire to make peace and, at times, defended settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Then-journalist Yair Lapid interviews Benjamin Netanyahu after he took a break from politics in 1999. (Screenshot: Youtube)

The parliamentary election this autumn will be the seventh time Lapid and Netanyahu face off at the ballot box.

Following a March 2020 election, Lapid’s former political partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, struck a coalition deal with Netanyahu in an attempt to end Israel’s unprecedented, and still ongoing, era of political deadlock.

In perhaps another demonstration of his political acumen, Lapid cut ties with Gantz at the time, warning that Netanyahu would break up the coalition before honoring a power-sharing deal.

Speaking to AFP in 2020, Lapid said: “I told (Gantz), ‘I’ve worked with Netanyahu. Why don’t you listen to the voice of experience?… He is not going to change.'”

Netanyahu’s eventual efforts to evade his agreements with Gantz led to the fall of that government, and ultimately Netanyahu himself after the 2021 vote.

For Lipman, Lapid’s commitment to family, specifically the care for his autistic daughter, speaks to the new prime minister’s character.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and his daughter Yael in 2018. (Yair Lapid’ Facebook profile)

Lipman recalled that when Lapid was finance minister, he regularly set time aside in his weekly schedule for meeting his daughter, whose condition prevents her from communicating with him.

“I believe that he is very inspirational as a leader, which shows a level of care and compassion that gets to the core of who he is,” Lipman said, describing Lapid as uninterested in the trappings of power.

As finance minister, Lapid refused the car and driver offered by the state, Lipman recalled.

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