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Whatever Happened to Yair Lapid?

The biggest winner of Israel’s January Knesset elections was Yair Lapid, the former TV personality who led his Yesh Atid Party to a tremendous showing, gaining 19 Knesset seats in its first try for office. In the aftermath of that victory and prior to his joining Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, I speculated as to whether Lapid could survive success since every previous such newcomer to Israeli electoral politics who had such a good showing was soon brought to grief. The definitive answer to that question will have to wait until at least after the next Israeli election. But four months later the tentative response would have to be that he appears on track to be felled by the same sin that every other “centrist” new voice has committed: accepting the responsibility of government.

Lapid’s personal popularity has plummeted as a result of him getting the short straw when Netanyahu handed out Cabinet posts. As finance minister, Lapid, whose party was catapulted to a second place finish by capitalizing on middle class discontent, has had the unfortunate responsibility of paying the bills in a country where most people and their government live on credit. There was no rational alternative to the austerity budget that he presented to the Knesset, but the tax increases and budget cuts in it were not exactly what his voters had in mind when they put him in office. Polls show half of those who backed Yesh Atid won’t do so again and that has left Lapid, who has not given interviews in recent months, with the need to reboot his personality cult. As part of this effort, he gave an interview to the New York Times to talk about his political education in terms that seem painfully familiar for those who remember how other centrist leaders were schooled by reality once they took office.

But what’s fascinating about the interview isn’t his confession that he “used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts.” Nor is it his bold prediction that all will come right in the end for him. It’s that despite the best efforts of the Times to entice him to win some popularity abroad by separating himself from Netanyahu on the peace process, Lapid’s positions remain virtually identical to those of the prime minster. For all of his current political problems, Lapid understands there’s no future in Israel for those who curry favor with the country’s foreign critics.

Lapid’s great showing was rooted in the fact that the election was largely fought on economic issues rather than the traditional left/right lines on the peace process. As such, his appeal was to a middle class that feels it has not benefited from the country’s prosperous economy. But while it’s easy to represent the views of those Israelis who complain about the high price of cottage cheese on TV or on the campaign trail, it’s impossible to do so from an office in the Finance Ministry. Lapid may still be the coolest politician in Israel with his trademark black T-shirts and good looks, but all the charisma in the world can’t produce cheap cottage cheese that has become the Israeli equivalent of the free lunch that American libertarians talk about.

Having taken on the job of running the economy, Lapid has assumed a post that breaks most politicians. Indeed, other than Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom were the rara avis of Israeli politics in that they actually understood economics, virtually every person who has shuttled in and out of Lapid’s current office has failed. So that gives him every chance to wind up as his predecessors from the Dash, Tzomet, Center, Third Way and Shinui and be a one-election wonder rather than challenging Netanyahu for prime minister the next time Israelis head to the polls.

Yet in his favor is the same basic fact that earned Yesh Atid its big win: Israeli voters are no longer divided so easily between the two competing camps of left and right about the peace process. Lapid’s big showing was made possible by the collapse of the traditional left and a willingness by many Israelis to cast their vote on other issues. While his star has been dimmed by his inability to play the outsider anymore, there will still be a large constituency for a centrist alternative to Netanyahu that isn’t compromised by leftist illusions about the Palestinians.

And that is the thing about Lapid that seems most interesting to the Times. Rather than looking to separate himself from the prime minister in a way that would make him look good to the Times and other critics of the country’s security policies, Lapid stuck to the hard line he espoused during the election:

While he described the two-state solution as “crucial” to preserving Israel as a Jewish nation, he offered no hints of Israeli concessions that could break the stalemate in the peace process. Instead, he repeatedly said he hoped that Secretary of State John Kerry, who is scheduled to arrive here this week for his fourth visit in two months, would “jump-start” it.

And he expressed extreme skepticism about the likelihood of reaching a deal with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, saying, “He’s one of the founding fathers of the victimizing concept of the Palestinians.”

He also questioned whether Palestinians truly wanted a state.

Also of interest to the Times was the fact that Lapid doesn’t share the sensibilities of Americans liberals and the far left of the Israeli political spectrum in another fashion:

One of the things that led some to turn on Mr. Lapid was the revelation that he met in April with Sheldon Adelson, the ultraconservative financier who backs Mr. Netanyahu and owns the Israel Hayom newspaper that loyally supports him. Mr. Lapid said Thursday that Mr. Adelson requested the meeting to ensure that the government would continue its matching grant of about $40 million to Birthright, a program that brings young Jews to Israel, and that “there was nothing political about it.”

While Adelson has been thoroughly demonized in the Times for backing Republicans, bureau chief Jodi Rudoren seems blissfully unaware that his Israeli paper is the best-read publication (approximately 40 percent read it) in a country where newspaper readership is still high. Only in the Times could there be anything remotely controversial about an Israeli finance minister meeting with the one of the world’s leading donors to Jewish philanthropies.

Yair Lapid is a savvy politician and if anyone can break the curse of Israeli centrism it will be him. But whether he does survive past the next election or not, he has made the wise determination that anyone who wants a future in his country’s politics can’t bet their careers on the myth that the Palestinians want peace. Those who hope he will challenge Netanyahu on the peace process are barking up the wrong tree.


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