JERUSALEM – Political newcomer Yair Lapid electrified Israel with his surprising success in this week's election and an Obama-like message of hope and change, and expectations are high.
The former TV talk show host will need to make strides on pressing economic ills and advance peace prospects with the Palestinians to avoid becoming another in a long line of centrists who have burst onto the political scene with great fanfare, only to flame out.
To avoid that fate, Lapid's Yesh Atid movement may have to temper the lofty expectations of the Israeli public, and will surely need to produce concrete results in Israel's Knesset, or parliament.
"Everyone at Yesh Atid is aware of the expectations and the responsibility which is upon us," said Dov Lipman, an American-born rabbi and incoming lawmaker from Lapid's party. "All of us, including our party leader, left other careers to enter the Knesset. We did so out of a sense of duty and a passion to change the country's course, and we plan to rise to the mandate we have been given to do so."
Pre-election polls predicted Lapid's party would win about a dozen of 120 parliament seats. Instead, the party, running in its first election, emerged as the country's second-biggest party with 19 seats. Israeli pollsters said a mass of undecided voters went with Lapid in the final days of the campaign, with roughly half of them coming from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's traditional base of support.
Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu party remains the largest parliamentary bloc with 31 seats, and he is expected to continue to serve as prime minister. But the faction's strength fell substantially, from 42 seats in the outgoing parliament, and Netanyahu has little choice but to form an alliance with Lapid to ensure a viable governing majority.
Though Lapid himself comes from Israel's high society — he is a well-known media celebrity and the son of a former Cabinet minister — he campaigned as an average citizen fighting for Israel's struggling middle class. He criticized the country's high cost of living, its expensive system of handouts and draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox seminary students, and to a lesser extent, Netanyahu's failure to advance peace efforts with the Palestinians.
The election, seen as a slap against Netanyahu, has made Lapid the talk of the nation and given him a honeymoon with Israel's normally contentious media. His coiffed silvery hair and wide grin have been plastered on the front pages of newspapers all week. Even Israel's usually brutal political cartoonists are accentuating his telegenic looks.
Netanyahu has already reached out to Lapid, calling for formation of a broad coalition. The two men spent two and a half hours in a face-to-face meeting this week, the beginning of an intensive period of negotiations in which Netanyahu will haggle with Lapid and other party leaders over political appointments and key policy goals.
Given its strong bargaining position, Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, is convinced it can make headway on two of the most intractable issues to bedevil the country: forcing ultra-Orthodox men to join their secular counterparts in performing compulsory military or national service; and pushing forward a peace treaty that would result in a Palestinian state.
These were two issues Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox and hawkish partners have until now been unable, or unwilling, to resolve.
"Yair Lapid has been clear that we will go to the opposition if the government is not committed to both," said Lipman. "We are confident that both can be achieved."
Doing so will not be easy. To ensure a parliamentary majority, Lapid and Netanyahu would need at least one other partner. The most likely candidates appear to be either smaller, ultra-Orthodox parties, which are sure to fight any reform in the draft law, or the pro-settler Jewish Home, which will resist any attempt to reach peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu's own bloc is dominated by hard-liners who oppose any concessions to the Palestinians. Lapid will have to use every ounce of his powers of persuasion to make progress on either front.
It's not the first time a party championing centrist views has marched onto the scene seeking to solve similar issues. All before him have failed, including Lapid's own father.
The late Joseph "Tommy" Lapid, also a journalist turned politician, led the liberal Shinui party from 1999-2006. In 2003 elections the party ran on a staunchly anti-religious platform, garnering 15 seats in parliament and making it Israel's third-biggest party. But it bolted the governing coalition when an ultra-Orthodox party joined, making it impossible to carry out its pledge to loosen the grip of religious interests on some state institutions. Shinui subsequently disappeared.
The Center Party, created in 1999, had seasoned politicians and a retired general at its helm, but it also eventually disappeared on the backdrop of the rise of an ultra-Orthodox party.
More recently, Kadima, formed by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with moderate breakaways from the rival Likud and Labor parties, has seen its fortunes sink. Pushing for an accommodation with the Palestinians, it went from being the largest party in parliament in 2006 with 29 seats, to the smallest party in the incoming parliament, with just two seats.
Dov Weisglass, who served as Sharon's chief of staff, said the demise of these centrist parties — including Kadima — does not signal a failure of centrists in Israeli politics, but a dynamic voter base.
"Centrist voters move from place to place, depending on circumstances," said Weisglass. "The center is made up of people who believe in judgment by trial."
He and other political analysts predicted that Lapid could have more success than his centrist predecessors, including his own father. Joseph Lapid was in his 70s when Shinui made its quick rise and fall. His 49-year-old son is younger and has more time to build up his party in elections to come.
"He has all the time in the world," said political commentator Hanan Kristal. And, "he has learned lessons from his dad."
The makeup of Lapid's party is also far different from those of his predecessors. Instead of recycling experienced politicians, Lapid cobbled together an eclectic list of inexperienced newcomers. The coterie of enthusiastic, diverse fresh faces — Ethiopian Jewish immigrants, social workers, a former security chief, a progressive Orthodox rabbi, and even a judo champion — could inject new ideas to the political scene.
Israeli commentators expect Lapid to drive a hard bargain with Netanyahu. "Netanyahu will barely be able to swallow, but people tend to show a surprising degree of flexibility when they have a knife to their necks," wrote leading columnist Nahum Barnea.
"He looks cavalier, and a little bit like a beach boy, but I think there's a lot of substance," said Yaron Ezrahi, a politics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "This is the real incarnation of centrist leadership. Many people see it as a victory of enlightened Israel over fanatic Israel."
If a Netanyahu-Lapid coalition fails to realize the key goals of Lapid's party, Ezrahi said, the government could crumble, and Lapid could make a serious run at becoming prime minister.
"It depends on his performance here, but he might carry the day," Ezrahi said. "If he will do the right things in this coalition, there is a future for Lapid."
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