Israel's Lapid: from TV anchor to top Netanyahu challenger

Guillaume Lavallee
·3-min read

He's a former prime-time news anchor once known largely for his chiselled good looks, but Israel's Yair Lapid has become one of the strongest challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Lapid founded his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party in 2012, some dismissed him as the latest in a series of media stars seeking to parlay his celebrity into political success.

Yesh Atid, a fiercely secularist and centrist party, claimed a surprising 19 seats in Israel's 120-member parliament in 2013 elections, earning Lapid a brief turn as finance minister under Netanyahu and establishing him as a credible force in politics.

That credibility is now reaching new peaks.

Yesh Atid joined the centrist Blue and White coalition formed in 2019 under the leadership of former military chief Benny Gantz.

Blue and White then battled Netanyahu's right-wing Likud in three elections -- all inconclusive -- in less than a year.

When Gantz decided last spring to enter a Netanyahu-led coalition, citing the need for unity as the coronavirus pandemic was gathering pace, Lapid bolted.

He accused Gantz of breaching a fundamental promise Blue and White had made to its supporters: that it would fight to oust Netanyahu.

In an interview with AFP in September, Lapid said Gantz had naively believed that Netanyahu would work collaboratively within the coalition.

"I told (Gantz), 'I've worked with Netanyahu. Why don't you listen to the voice of experience... He is 71 years old. He is not going to change'," Lapid said.

After exiting Blue and White, Lapid entered parliament as the head of Yesh Atid and leader of the opposition.

He described the short-lived Netanyahu-Gantz unity government as "a ridiculous coalition", in which cabinet ministers who disliked each other did not bother to communicate.

He also predicted the coalition would collapse in December, which it did, amid bitter acrimony between Netanyahu and Gantz.

- Lapid 'has changed' -

Lapid is the Tel Aviv-born 57-year-old son of the fiercely secular former justice minister Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, another journalist who left the media to enter politics.

His mother, Shulamit, is a novelist, playwright and poet.

Yair Lapid, an amateur boxer and martial artist who has also published a dozen books, including thrillers, children's literature and non-fiction, was a newspaper columnist before becoming a presenter on Channel 2 TV, a role that boosted his stardom.

Opinion polls indicate his Yesh Atid will win between 18 and 20 seats on Tuesday, likely making it the second-largest party in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, behind Likud.

While he may have replaced Gantz as the strongest force in the anti-Netanyahu camp, Lapid's path to a 61-seat majority and the premiership is complex and would likely require a tricky alliance of right-wingers, leftists and Arab Israeli lawmakers.

Lapid, who once featured on lists of Israel's most desirable men, is now running a sober campaign to position himself as the alternative to Netanyahu, political columnist Yuval Karni wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper last week.

"Lapid with the knife between his teeth has changed," Karni wrote.

"He rarely gives interviews, refrains from self-aggrandisement and instead of slinging mud (against his religious Jewish opponents)... released a plan about climate change.

"Lapid is now conducting a campaign for the premiership, or more correctly, a campaign to replace Netanyahu."

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