Yair Lapid, Israel’s new prime minister, played the long game for power

JERUSALEM – Nearly a decade ago, Yair Lapid, then the new leader of Israel’s political center, was asked by a television interviewer if he wanted to become prime minister after the next election.

‘I suppose so,’ he replied, even though he had been elected to parliament for the first time a week earlier.

It was a rookie mistake. Mr. Lapid, then better known as a popular television host, journalist, actor and songwriter, was widely ridiculed as a cocky and shallow political novice.

By the time he finally stepped into coveted office at midnight on Thursday, albeit as prime minister of a caretaker government following the collapse of the ruling coalition, he had grown considerably in experience and public stature.

Leader of the centrist Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, now Israel’s second-largest after Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, Mr. Lapid, 58, has since served in government as Secretary of the Treasury, Strategic Affairs, Foreign Affairs and deputy prime minister, along with a stint as leader of the opposition.

“Once into politics, he learned the trade pretty quickly,” Nahum Barnea, a veteran Israeli political columnist for the popular newspaper Yediot Ahronot, said in an interview.

Mr Lapid is expected to remain in charge until an election scheduled for November 1 and several weeks or months after, as the parties typically need lengthy negotiations to form a new coalition.

While many new parties in Israel have sprung up and gone out of fashion within one election cycle, Mr. Lapid managed to build a party with a strong infrastructure and an army of volunteer foot soldiers.

Another positive surprise, said Mr. Barnea, was how Mr. Lapid learned to “put his ego aside” and give in to others while playing a long game in his bid for power.

When Yesh Atid joined forces with other centrist parties under the banner of the Blue and White Alliance in 2019, Mr. Lapid, the No. 2 on the slate, willingly gave up an agreement he had with the No. 1, Benny Gantz, a former military chief, to rotate the premiership if they win the upcoming election.

Mr Lapid, who lacks the security credentials that have facilitated other Israelis’ path to power, understood that the deal hurt Blue and White’s chances.

More striking was what happened after the March 2021 elections, the fourth tiebreaker in two years, when Netanyahu repeatedly tried to stay in power despite being on trial for corruption.

Mr Netanyahu again failed to get a majority and as a result, Mr Lapid, the runner-up, was given the chance to form a government. He managed to forge an ideologically diverse coalition of eight parties with a paper-thin majority.

And in what many viewed as a selfless act not typical of Israeli politicians, he allowed Naftali Bennett, a coalition partner who led a small, right-wing party, to take first turn as prime minister in another rotational pact, as Mr Bennett has seen as more acceptable to the right wing of the coalition.

That arrangement lasted for a year. Under the terms of their coalition agreement, Mr Lapid would take over from Mr Bennett in August 2023. But reflecting the unifying and inclusive political climate they were trying to create after years of toxic division, Mr Bennett announced he was abiding by their pact and would hand over the reins to Mr Lapid upon the dissolution of Parliament.

The powers of an interim government are limited, so it is unlikely that Mr Lapid will make significant policy changes, but he will have the advantage of campaigning as an incumbent for the next election. He will also have the chance to welcome President Biden in mid-July, when he makes his first trip to the Middle East since taking office.

In a direct election race with Mr Netanyahu – who is leading the polls despite his ongoing legal troubles – Mr Lapid can hold his own as a polished, articulate and telegenic communicator.

The son of Yosef Lapid, an often abrasive former minister and Holocaust survivor, and Shulamit Lapid, a novelist, he was known for his friendly interview style during his television days. With his good looks and friendly demeanor, his celebrity status came in part from his image as a quintessential Israeli.

One of his more successful songs, “Living on Sheinkin,” referencing a trendy Tel Aviv street, became a hit for an Israeli girl band in the late 1980s.

Mr. Lapid founded Yesh Atid in 2012. The party was the surprise of the election the following year, winning 19 seats in the 120-seat parliament. Mr Lapid became finance minister in a Netanyahu-led government.

He rode in a wave of middle-class frustration over Israel’s ever-rising costs of living and housing, which had sparked widespread protests against social justice in 2011. One of his catchphrases was “Where’s the money?”

In his early years in politics, he championed popular demands for more equal burden-sharing, notably an end to automatic military exemptions for thousands of ultra-Orthodox students who choose full-time Torah studies, as well as a cut in taxes smothered middle class.

Particularly popular in the metropolitan area of ​​Tel Aviv and secular, suburban Israel, Mr. Lapid and his party have historically suffered from taking safe, centrist stances that have been less compelling than those of more ideological parties.

“In the beginning, the political center was very shapeless,” said Orit Galili-Zucker, a former strategic communications adviser to Netanyahu and an expert on political branding. “It wasn’t clear what it was.”

Sometimes, when Mr. Lapid tried to appeal to soft-right voters, he was accused of going with the wind and saying what he thought people wanted to hear. He has denounced supporters of boycotts against Israel and its settlements in the occupied West Bank as anti-Semites and has sharply criticized an Israeli anti-occupation group collecting testimonies from former soldiers called Breaking the Silence.

Now, Ms Galili-Zucker said, he has established himself as more center-left. He has expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though it seems unattainable at the moment.

At the same time, he has become more lenient with the ultra-Orthodox parties, which have been the cornerstone of most governing coalitions in recent decades.

mr. Lapid is a father of three and a former amateur boxer with a black belt in karate. He is married to Lihi Lapid, a successful writer. Their daughter, Yael, is on the autism spectrum, and Mr Lapid became emotional in May when the cabinet discussed additional funding for people with disabilities and told ministers: “This is the most important thing you will ever do.”

After his father died in 2008 at the age of 77, Mr. Lapid ‘Memories After My Death’ tells the story of his father’s life from his days in the Budapest ghetto to his stint as justice minister in Ariel Sharon’s government.

Mr. Lapid once recounted in a television interview that four days before his death, his father told him, “Yairi, I am leaving for you a family and a state.”

After parliament was dissolved on Thursday, and hours before he formally took over as prime minister, Mr Lapid went straight to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.

“There he wrote on Twitter: “I promised my late father that I will always keep Israel strong and able to defend itself and protect its children.”

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