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Israeli showman gains from disgust with politics

Israeli actor, journalist and author Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, visits a polling station in the coastal city of Netanya, on January 22, 2013. Photo by AFP

Yair Lapid, surprise of the Israeli election

TV exit polls put media star’s Yesh Atid party in second place with 19 seats.

By Revital Hovel, Ha’aretz
January 22, 2013

The big surprise of this election was undoubtedly former journalist Yair Lapid.

The last polls published before election day showed his Yesh Atid party getting about 12 seats. But Tuesday night exit polls showed him getting 19 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, making his the second-largest party in the Knesset. The result confounded all expectations, and significantly changes the likely composition of the next government.

His political career officially began on January 8, 2012, when Lapid, then a Channel 2 television presenter and a columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, announced he was resigning from Channel 2 to run in the next election. At the time, polls predicted he would win 15 seats.

When he unveiled the first member of his new party’s slate, he drew immediate fire: Jacob Perry was both a former Shin Bet security service chief and a former chairman of the board of Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, and among other complaints, his critics charged that a man who had earned millions as a bank chairman couldn’t possibly represent the middle class.

Lapid was also criticized for his party’s bylaws, which grant him complete control of the party and prevent him from being ousted as its chairman until 2020.

But over the ensuing months, Lapid put together a diverse slate. It included Rabbi Shay Piron, one of the leaders of Tzohar, an association of moderate religious Zionist rabbis; Herzliya Mayor Yael German, formerly of Meretz; Dimona Mayor Meir Cohen, formerly of Yisrael Beiteinu; journalist Ofer Shelah; and Dr. Aliza Lavie, a university lecturer in political science and author of “A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book.”

Lapid’s campaign slogan was “We’ve come to change things.” Among the changes he promised at his opening campaign rally were the following: “Everyone will serve the state,” “Our children will be able to buy apartments,” and “We’ll pay less for gasoline and electricity.”

Leaned toward joining government
Lapid believes the way to have an impact is by serving in the government, and therefore, he repeatedly said his preference would be to join the coalition. Nevertheless, he also stressed continually, “We won’t agree to serve as a fig leaf for a government of the right and the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox]” meaning he would refuse to enter the government unless he were joined by one of the other center-left parties, such as Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah or Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor.

He also said his No. 1 condition for joining the government is that it must adopt a plan to ensure that the Haredim join the army and the workforce. Another condition is that it must conduct negotiations with the Palestinians.

Lapid’s plan for drafting the Haredim calls for continuing their existing draft exemptions for another five years, but allowing them to work during this period rather than conditioning the exemption on their being full-time yeshiva students.

During this period, the government would prepare the infrastructure for a civilian service program that would constitute an alternative to military service for those who aren’t drafted.

Lapid unveiled his diplomatic program in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. It calls for negotiating with the Palestinians, but says that Israel won’t recognize a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and that Jerusalem will remain undivided under Israeli sovereignty.

“We won’t sit in a government that once again tries on various pretexts, and due to narrow political considerations to water down our obligation to the future, and also to the present,” Lapid said last night. “We must not lose the State of Israel’s Jewish majority. … Without an agreement [with the Palestinians], Israel’s Jewish and Zionist identity is in danger.”

Israel election result hands rising star Yair Lapid a pivotal role

Former journalist whose party won second largest share of seats is courted by both Binyamin Netanyahu and Shelly Yachimovich

By Harriet Sherwood,  Guardian

January 23, 2013

Yair Lapid, the celebrity journalist-turned-politician who shook the Israeli political landscape with an unexpectedly strong showing in Tuesday’s election is being intensively courted by parties on both the right and left who are desperate to snare him for their camp.

Lapid, whose party came second, winning 19 of 120 parliamentary seats, was the target of competing appeals by Binyamin Netanyahu, who – although weakened – is expected to form another coalition government, and Shelly Yachimovich, who is likely to be leader of the opposition.

Lapid’s pivotal role followed a poor result for Netanyahu’s rightwing alliance, which secured 31 seats, down from a previous total of 42. In a damaging blow to the incumbent prime minister, a sizeable proportion of former Netanyahu supporters are believed to have switched their political allegiance to Lapid, who entered politics only a year ago.

Netanyahu is now considering complex options for the next coalition government – the inevitable outcome of Israel’s electoral system of proportional representation. He telephoned Lapid shortly after exit polls accurately predicted the result of the election, telling him: “We have the opportunity to do great things together.”

Any further conversations between the pair took place in private, but one of the main issues for negotiation was thought to be an end to the exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory military service. The mantra of “sharing the burden” was central to Lapid’s election campaign.

A statement from Netanyahu on Wednesday signalled a shift in his priorities in order to tick the boxes of Lapid’s political platform. “The Israeli public wants me to continue leading the country and it wants me to build a coalition that would create three major changes domestically: more equal distribution of the national burden [military service], affordable housing, and change in the system of government,” he said.

During his first term, Netanyahu focused on security issues, with the Iranian nuclear programme at the top of his list of priorities.

Yachimovich, the leader of the Labour party, urged Lapid to join an alternative centre-left camp, which could try to form a coalition government or be a robust opposition to another rightwing-religious government.

After congratulating Lapid on his “remarkable achievement”, she told reporters: “I urge him not to join a Netanyahu-led government and not take part in the middle-class calamity, which will happen the day after he is sworn in. Should he choose the other way – I’ll stand by him and assist.”

She said she intended to do all in her power to “take advantage of the political possibility opened yesterday to form a coalition of moderate, social, peace advocate and centrist forces without Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.”

If this was not possible, she would remain in the opposition. “This will be a strong, aggressive and biting opposition and we’ll do all we can to prevent Netanyahu from imposing the socially unbearable hell he’s planning if he manages to form a government.”

Support for Lapid accelerated in the final days of the election campaign, during which opinion polls are banned. The final surveys, published last Friday, forecast around 12 seats for Lapid’s Yesh Atid party while cautioning that almost one in five voters was undecided.

As well as attracting disillusioned former Netanyahu voters, Lapid appears to have capitalised on the wave of anger felt in Israel in the past two years over the high cost of living, especially for young families.

Massive “social justice” protests swept the country 18 months ago, culminating in almost half a million people taking to the streets in September 2011.

“In the winter of 2013 the biggest protest of all was held. There were not half a million people there as there were in the summer of 2011; rather, it was millions of people,” wrote Yael Paz-Melamed in Ma’ariv.

“The silent majority in Israel, the people who work, pay taxes, go to the army, serve in reserve duty, and especially those who chose to live here freely – they got off of the couch, filled the ballot boxes and took back the power they deserve.”

One of Israel’s most respected commentators, Nahum Barnea, wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth: “The lesson [of the election] must begin at the protest movement of the summer of 2011. By the time autumn arrived, the tents on the streets had been dismantled, the general sense was that the protest was dead and buried. That wasn’t the case. The seeds had been sown. They were waiting for the rain in order to sprout, and the rain came … The feeling of disgust with the political game rules did not die: it only increased further. It went beyond Facebook posts and influenced not only the younger generation in the big cities but other age groups and other sectors of the society.”

How Does Yair Lapid See the World?

Yair Lapid and the New Face of Israeli Politics

By Matthew Bell, The World

January 23, 2013

One of the big surprises with Israel’s election on Tuesday was second-place finisher, Yair Lapid. He is a household name in the Jewish State, but a relatively unknown quantity around the world. That is especially true when it comes to Lapid’s views on foreign policy. In his victory speech last night, this is all the candidate had to say about international affairs.

“… we are facing a world that is liable to ostracize us because of the deadlock in the peace process.”

Not much there there. But this is also how Lapid ran his campaign. It was heavy on domestic issues, thin on foreign policy matters. And that is probably one factor that helped him and his Yesh Atid (“There is a future,” in Hebrew) party do so well at the polls.

“They wanted to focus on presenting themselves as an alternative on what they think are the issues that most concern voters,” said Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University. “Namely, social and economic issues, the quality of governance and the state of democracy inside Israel.”

But now that Lapid and his party are being crowned as the kingmakers in Israeli politics, the question is, where do they stand on major foreign policy issues?

Here are some hints.

The Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman did an interview with Lapid back in October and asked him how he would handle Iran differently than Netanyahu.

Netanyahu made two big mistakes on the Iranian issue. The first was instigating a conflict with the US administration, betting on the wrong pony and thinking [Republican candidate Mitt] Romney would win the election. We have an Israeli prime minister who shares the biggest sponsor as the Republican candidate in Sheldon Adelson and says things that hurt the president in an election year. It has created a situation in which it became an Israel-Iran problem and not a world-Iran problem. Netanyahu made it into a local conflict between Israelis and Iranians, and this is wrong. There is only one way to end the Iranian nuclear threat: the fall of the ayatollahs. An Israeli strike would only delay the Iranian nuclear problem. It would enable the Iranians to say we have been attacked by a nuclear country and now we have no choice but to develop nuclear weapons.

The way to make the ayatollahs fall is to strengthen the sanctions. Average Iranian citizens don’t understand why they have 60% inflation, why they can’t get chicken and they can’t get gas in one of the world’s biggest oil suppliers. If this continues, the Iranian people won’t stand for it. If you listen to Netanyahu, he is more interested in giving ultimatums to the US. It is hubris to give an ultimatum to the US. People tend to forget that the plane Netanyahu is sending to bomb Iran is an American plane. He thinks he can drag America to do what it doesn’t want to do. He is leading Israel to war too soon, before it’s necessary. Like Netanyahu, I think that if we came to the point of no return, Israel would have to bomb, but there is still a lot left to do to avoid that. I had problems with Netanyahu’s UN speech. Who gives a date on war in advance? You only go to war when you have no choice. My red line is the same as that of the professional security men I talk with.

The security man Lapid presumably talks with more than any other is Yaakov Peri, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service and number five on Yesh Atid’s candidate list. Peri took part in a debate earlier this month at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, along with three other candidates from major parties, and he talked about what needs to happen to make peace with the Palestinians.

“Israel should do everything – its utmost – in order to come back, to go back, to the negotiation table and to find a compromise,” Peri said.

“I know that we have partners,” he said, warning against allowing the collapse of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, whose leaders have been much derided by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Not easy partners,” Peri said, but “we should come to an agreement or a compromise which will build two states to the two people.”

Peri also offers a captivating quote during his appearance in the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Gatekeepers. After criticizing Israeli politicians on camera for utterly failing to make smart strategic decisions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Peri tells the filmmaker that retiring from the job of Shin Bet chief means, “you become a bit of a leftist.”

But that is a label Yair Lapid rejects. “I am not a leftist,” Lapid told Gil Hoffman, while answering a question about who should blamed for the stalled negotiations with the Palestinians.

I think the Palestinians should blame mostly themselves. After the disengagement, instead of building hospitals and schools, they fired rockets. But if an Israeli prime minister would be really determined to have negotiations, there would be negotiations. I think Netanyahu is too scared of [activist Moshe] Feiglin and [coalition chairman Ze’ev] Elkin and other extremists in his party, so he took the most dangerous conflict, delayed dealing with it, and made our children have to deal with double the number of Palestinians just so he will have an easier time passing the next Likud convention in peace.

Lapid has said he will not join a coalition that refuses to return to negotiations with the Palestinians. But he has also gone out of his way to distinguish himself from Israeli leaders like Tzipi Livni, who campaigned heavily on a pledge to rekindle the peace process. For a venue to launch his campaign, for example, Lapid chose Ariel.

“You don’t come to negotiations only with an olive branch, the way the left does, or only with a gun, the way the right does,” he said in a speech at the Ariel settlement deep in the West Bank. “You come to find a solution. We’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with.”

As Jeffrey Goldberg points out, Lapid has avoided taking positions that might lead Israelis to think of him as left of center on security.

Yair Lapid and his party — a “center center” party, in Israeli parlance — might agitate for new negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. But Lapid has shifted his rhetoric since moving from journalism into politics. Two years ago, he wrote caustically about the settlers: “Four percent of the country’s residents cannot decide that they are the only ones who know what’s right.” In this campaign, though, Lapid spoke about the importance of holding onto those large settlements closest to the 1967 “Green Line,” and he spoke repeatedly about the paramount importance of Jerusalem, which he said is “the reason we are here and if we have to fight for it we will fight for it.”

Still, Mark Heller doubts that Lapid and his Yesh Atid colleagues would end up joining a government coalition and then focus solely on their social and economic agenda at the expense of other issues. “They can’t and won’t,” Heller told me, “completely abdicate everything in the foreign and defense field to the other parties.”

Heller said he could see Lapid advocating for more centrist and pragmatic positions on foreign policy, especially compared to those of hardliners from the Jewish Home and Likud parties.

Matthew Bell is a Jerusalem-based Middle East reporter.

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