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Rising star candidate poised to reset the table of Israeli politics

Israeli broadcaster , columnist, TV anchor Yair Lapid who is now officially a politician before a performance billed as "An evening of music, song and anecdotes" at the Ness Ziona Cultural Center, southeast of Tel Aviv.

Heidi Levine for The Globe and Mail/heidi levine The Globe and Mail

Yair Lapid, the rising new star of Israeli politics, must have liked what he saw when he gazed out from the stage at the full house of some 750 Israelis in this affluent community outside Tel Aviv on a Saturday night in February, 2012.

It was an audience that was just like him: mostly between the ages of 30 and 50, mostly secular (not a skullcap in sight), Ashkenazi (of European origin) and reasonably well off (the cheapest ticket was 109 shekels or $30).

That last feature must have doubly pleased him: How many campaigning politicians can charge admission to hear them speak?

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But then, as a former TV news anchor and popular columnist, author and actor, the 48-year-old Mr. Lapid isn't like any other politician. He has star quality that pulls in the paying crowds. And if public-opinion surveys are to be believed, he has the chance to upset some of the country's biggest parties and rearrange Israeli politics.

On stage he casts himself as the hero of the working class, playing to the shared experiences of his audience and himself, joking about the years of army service everyone put in. That's something that distinguishes Mr. Lapid and the audience from the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) most of whom do no army service and are the brunt of some of his jokes. (Mr. Lapid's father fashioned a political career out of his contempt for the Haredim.) He is joined on stage by two popular musicians, giving the evening the feeling of an intimate jam session among buddies. Think Dean Martin without the booze.

Throughout it all is a not-so-subliminal political message: We secular, middle-class Ashkenazis are the Israelis who built this country and it's about time we got to enjoy it.

Ironically, this former media star sees no reason to talk to the media. He has held no press conferences and given no interviews since he resigned from his prominent news show more than a month ago and threw his hat in the ring.

"Why no interviews," I ask him backstage before his performance.

"Why should I?" he replies. "I'm reaching the people I want to reach."

Apart from his weekly newspaper column and occasional evenings like this one, Mr. Lapid's contact with voters is pretty well limited to his Facebook pages that are part comic book, video, and dialogue.

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It's from there that he appeals to followers, building an army of volunteers through viral campaigning , asking each current volunteer to send in the names and e-mail addresses of five other potential volunteers. "We'll take it from there," he says.

When he announced his candidacy (in his own column and on his Facebook page) Mr. Lapid summed up his platform in three words: "Where's the money?" By which he means where was money wasted (on the religious and the Arab sectors, is the implicit answer), where would money better be spent (on education and health care for real Israelis) and, most of all, where's the payoff for us hard-working stiffs?

Mr. Lapid's avoidance of the media and use of direct-marketing is "a smart tactic," says Rafi Smith, a veteran Israeli pollster and head of the Smith Research Institute. "This way he keeps a low profile, controls the message and avoids gaffes while he organizes his new party," Mr. Smith explained.

"He had to declare his candidacy earlier than he wanted to," Mr. Smith pointed out, and he has to sustain his level of popular support while he gets his act together.

Why come out before he was ready? Because the sitting members of the Knesset had it in for him. They were about to pass legislation that would have required members of the media to stay out of politics for six months after resigning their media positions, until Mr. Lapid jumped in and pre-empted their plans.

The members of Israel's fractious Knesset have reason to be nervous. Recent polls show the still unformed Lapid party taking close to 15 of the Knesset's 120 seats, a formidable bloc in a fractious parliament. It would be him ahead of the centrist Kadima party that has the most seats now, almost equal to Labour's projected total and trailing only the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a large margin.

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But Mr. Lapid's style of campaigning has drawn fire from many of the country's journalists and commentators.

"All he has come up with so far," wrote Shlomo Avineri, a prominent political scientist, "are maudlin, hollow phrases that convince many 'real' Israelis that they are so different from the despised ultra-Orthodox (and of course, from the Arabs ). This amounts to elegant and arrogant exclusion, verging on racism, of anyone who is not secular, Ashkenazi, educated and bourgeois."

Amnon Dankner, the respected former editor of the Hebrew-language daily Maariv, defends the man who seems so superficial. "He's the real thing," he insists, a natural political leader. "He's one of those people inside whom a fire is burning," he said. "I told him you'll burst if you don't run.

"And I wouldn't say he's never taken provocative positions," Mr. Dankner added, noting that a year ago Mr. Lapid urged the Israeli government to recognize a Palestinian state before everyone else did and last month said Jerusalem "belongs to the people of Israel and not to anyone else."

"His father never shied away from a fight, and he's got a lot of his father in him," said Mr. Dankner who had partnered with Tommy Lapid, also a journalist-turned politician, on a weekly TV program in which they argued opposing views.

"Yair is less tempestuous," Mr. Dankner added.

Both father and son made it their goal to end the exemption from military service given to most of the Haredim, to limit their dependence on public welfare, and to end the intolerance of the Haredim toward the behaviour of secular Israelis, particularly in wanting to keep women out of sight and the Sabbath and dietary laws strictly enforced.

Tommy Lapid's campaign against those privileges propelled the tiny Shinui Party to 15 Knesset seats in the 2003 election.

Yair has similar goals but his methods are quite different.

At a presentation to a Haredi teachers college last fall, Yair addressed an audience of 100 ultra-Orthodox Israelis, and surprised people by admitting defeat.

"We [secular Jews]used to think your community would just disappear," he said. "We saw you as a living museum of the way Jews used to be."

"But you have flourished and Israel is yours as much as mine."

"But since you are full citizens," he told them, no longer can they forego military service. Now, he said, they must join the work-force and pay taxes; they must now become tolerant of others.

"That's what I mean," said Amnon Dankner. "Tommy Lapid would have kicked down the door with guns blazing and people would have dived out the windows."

"But Yair," he said, "he knocks at the door, enters quietly, and delivers his message politely. We'll see who is more successful."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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