When Yair Lapid’s father, the well-known journalist and politician Tommy Lapid, was on his deathbed, he told his son: “I’m leaving you the state of Israel.”
Tommy, a Holocaust survivor, meant this metaphorically: the generation of survivors was entrusting the gift of a Jewish state to its children. But with the rise of Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), which emerged from nowhere to become Israel’s second-largest party in last week’s election, Yair’s “inheritence” could become literal. More than any other politician aside from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, Yair may now determine the next phase of Israeli politics.
“Yair,” not “Lapid”: we call our politicians Bibi and Shelly and Tzipi with a misleading intimacy, when in fact we can’t bear most of them. But even Israelis who wrongly dismiss him as a lightweight – a former TV talk show host and heartthrob, with no government or combat experience – tend to like Yair.
That’s because he is frankly, unapologetically, in love with the State of Israel. There is nothing complicated about Yair’s Israeliness. He is not a hyphenated Israeli, whose loyalty to the state depends on its fulfilment of an ideological agenda. Yair conveys the impression of a man comfortable in all parts of Israel. He is a secular Israeli who has shown increasing interest in Judaism. He supports a two-state solution and opposes settlement construction outside the large settlement blocs. Yet, he launched his campaign from the West Bank city of Ariel, sending the message that settlers are part of Israel too.
He opposes the wholesale draft exemption of ultra-Orthodox young men, but he advocates a gradualist approach and has an ultra-Orthodox rabbi on his Knesset list. He emerged as the voice of middle class disaffection, yet included on his list two Ethiopians, representatives of one of the country’s poorest constituencies. (Other parties tend to include a token Ethiopian.)
Some see Yair’s Israeli eclecticism as an expression of ideological immaturity, of indecisiveness. In fact, it reflects his ability – alone among today’s leaders – to define the Israeli centre.
To understand Yair’s Israeliness one needs to understand his father, who emerged as a teenager from the Budapest ghetto committed to a single act of faith: the Jews need a home. Tommy’s Zionism was simple. It was about gratitude to Israel for helping heal him from the extremities of exile. Tommy’s Israel didn’t need to be territorially whole or a light to the nations. It simply needed to be.
Yair’s biography of his father, Memoirs After My Death – one of the best books to emerge from the “second generation” – is written in Tommy’s voice, as if from the beyond. (Tommy was a famous atheist, and Yair ends the book with these words: “And then I stopped breathing… After that, there is nothing. I told you so.”) That is more than a clever device: it is an expression of the near-total identification of a son with his father, and with his father’s history. So deeply has Yair internalized his father’s story that he can write Tommy’s “autobiography” in a voice that Israelis will recognize as unmistakably that of Tommy Lapid.
And yet, as Yair has insisted since entering politics, he is not his father. “I’ve learned from my father,” he’s repeatedly said, “but also from his mistakes.”
Tommy’s biggest political mistake was his divisiveness: his party, Shinui (Change), was aggressively secular, not only attacking ultra-Orthodox separatism but also mocking ultra-Orthodox beliefs and lifestyle.
By contrast, Yair has sought dialogue. Last year, in an address at the ultra-Orthodox campus of the Kiryat Ono College, Yair conceded that the ultra-Orthodox had won. Secularists, he said, thought we could create a state that would marginalize you, while in reality we can’t make any major political decision without your input. But, he added pointedly, secularists also won: we’ve created a modern state with a thriving Hebrew culture. And so, he concluded, both camps have to choose between continuing their culture war or jointly taking responsibility for the state they share.
More than any other party, Yesh Atid defines the country’s emerging cultural centre. The son of Tommy Lapid has included no fewer than two rabbis on his list. But that list also includes Ruth Calderon, a leader of the growing movement of secularists seeking a new Jewish identity outside of Orthodoxy. The message is radical diversity within a shared Israeliness.
Yair’s ideological challenge will be to clarify the political centre and give coherence to the instincts of a majority of Israelis. That centrist majority seeks a politics that isn’t afraid to acknowledge the complexity of Israel’s dilemmas. These voters agree with the left about the dangers of occupation and with the right about the dangers of a delusional peace. Centrists want a two-state solution and are prepared to make almost any territorial compromise for peace. But they also believe that no concessions, at least for now, will win Israel legitimacy and real peace. Centrists want to be doves but are forced by reality to be hawks.
I voted for Yair because, as a centrist Israeli, I have no other political home.
Netanyahu, who accepted a two-state solution in principle and then imposed a 10-month settlement freeze, tried to turn Likud into a centre-right party, more pragmatic than ideological and able to attract voters like me. But the ideological right within the Likud revolted. Today’s Likud appears more hospitable to the far rightist Moshe Feiglin than to centrists like Dan Meridor, denied a safe seat in the Likud primaries.
The Israeli media are speaking relentlessly of an even divide between the left-wing and right-wing blocs. That’s nonsense. Yesh Atid isn’t a left-wing party; half of its voters define themselves as right of centre. Instead, the rise of Yesh Atid affirms the vigour of the centre. Despite the historic failure of every centrist party – Kadima, the last attempt, virtually disintegrated in this election – centrist Israelis continue to seek a political framework.
Will Yesh Atid be different from its failed centrist predecessors? How will the inexperienced Yair Lapid withstand the brutalities of Israeli politics?
I think Yair will continue to surprise us. What has taken him this far is his straightforward thinking, precisely what Israeli politics so desperately needs. (And his political adviser happens to be his father’s closest friend, Ehud Olmert, the ultimate politician.) If Yair remains true to his ideologically simple but emotionally profound Zionism, he could help lead us to an Israel less at war with itself.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a member of its Engaging Israel team. This article first appeared in Tablet.