Israel’s Great White Hope
Why Yair Lapid is not the answer to the (many) problems
Like the hapless Republicans, Israeli voters are constantly on the lookout for a savior to redeem them from the doldrums of an ossified political system. In 1992, former army chief of staff Refael Eitan rode this wave of resentment and secured eight Knesset seats for his party, Tzomet; by 1999, the party shut down, having failed to secure enough votes for a single seat in the parliament. Its disgruntled voters looked elsewhere for hope, and, in 2003, gave 15 mandates to Shinui, an anti-religious party led by TV pundit Yosef Lapid, making it the third largest party in the Knesset. By 2008, Shinui, too, was defunct.
This week, Yair Lapid, Yosef’s son and one of Israel’s most popular journalists, announced his intentions of entering the political arena. No one was surprised: Lapid Jr.’s de facto election campaign began years ago, and was conducted in the television news magazine he hosts on the nation’s most popular broadcast network and in the column he writes in the nation’s most popular newspaper. Some grumbled that a journalist so clearly committed to changing careers should abandon his media platforms or risk considerable ethical violations. Lapid didn’t seem bothered, reportedly meeting with a cadre of politicians, senior officers, and other public figures in an effort to start his own independent party. That party, and its newly recruited members, are both yet unnamed. Still, Israeli polls this week predicted that Lapid may win as many as 20 Knesset seats in the next elections, making his new party Israel’s third largest.
Which is a fine opportunity to stop and appraise the famous man. Like his father before him, Lapid is a natural on TV. While père made his fortune outshouting his ideological opponents on political panel shows, fils has constructed a slicker public image. With a perfectly coiffed and massively gelled shock of salt-and-pepper hair and a penchant for tight, black t-shirts, Lapid is Israel’s Everyman Superman: he’s sensitive yet masculine, fiercely secular yet deeply connected to his Jewish identity, determined yet willing to listen. His columns and television appearances convey the same message: all Israelis are different yet all Israelis are alike, and they should all work together for a bright, common, uncomplicated future.
If this sounds a touch sophomoric, it is. Lapid is a lot like that person in high school who is class president and good looking and beloved by the teachers and adored by the girls and chummy with the guys and full of bonhomie and pep, yet has said or thought or done nothing original or remarkable in his entire life. Which, in Israel’s contemporary political reality, makes him not only desirable but downright dangerous. Most likely, his new party will fizzle away just like his father’s—and every other recent overnight political sensation. In the meantime, however, his popularity is likely to thrust Israel further into the political abyss it’s been busily cultivating for the past year.
Take, for example, the rift between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. With riots erupting recently in several Israeli towns, and with anti-female practices gaining hold in Haredi communities in blatant violation of the state’s laws, Israel is long overdue for a serious, scathing debate about the limits of tolerance and the nature of religion. Instead, Lapid gave a recent speech in front of utlra-Orthodox youth and called for cooperation and collaboration. We should all work together, he told them, the state is ours to share.
It’s a lovely sentiment. It’s also an idiotic one. The ultra-Orthodox zealots who called a young girl a “whore” for not dressing modestly enough, who rioted to keep women relegated to the back of the bus, who throw soiled diapers at police officers trying to keep them from shutting down main roads on Shabbat—these cats are not looking for a dialogue. Nor are the settlers who smash IDF officers in the face with bricks and set mosques on fire. Nor are the MKs who splash water in the face of colleagues with whom they disagree. What Israel needs, then, is a principled leader capable of charting a course of action and then sticking to it. Prime Minister Netanyahu is notoriously incapable on that front, doing his best to be all things to all people. Lapid would be even worse.