Popular Israeli TV journalist to make a run for Knesset

One of the big open questions after Israel’s mass social protests last summer was whether or not the movement would be able to translate its newfound clout into lasting political power. None of Israel’s political parties seemed able to capture the demonstrators’ voice or allegiances.

That  could change with the entry into politics of one of Israel’s most popular journalists and TV personalities, Yair Lapid, son of the late Shinui Party leader Yosef “Tommy” Lapid.

The younger Lapid is expected to form a new centrist secular political party that polls show could receive up to 20 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, making him a potent political force.

While Lapid has refused to give interviews since his Jan. 8 announcement, a column he penned in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot offered a glimpse of what his platform will be: “Where’s the money?”

Yair Lapid photo/jta/courtesy of yair lapid

“This is the big question asked by Israel’s middle class, the same sector on whose behalf I’m going into politics,” Lapid wrote. “Why is it that the productive sector, which pays taxes, fulfills its duties, performs reserve service and carries the entire country on its back, doesn’t see the money?”

Lapid’s political gambit constitutes an assault on Israel’s politically powerful haredi Orthodox minority at a time of heightened tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. In his column, Lapid had harsh words for haredim, few of whom serve in the army but many of whom receive government aid.

“For many years now, the State of Israel has been [subjected] to extortionist, shameless interest groups, some of them non-Zionist even, which misuse our distorted system of government in order to rob the middle class of its money,” wrote Lapid, who for years has flirted with entering politics.

Israel’s next elections are scheduled to take place in early 2013, but a vote could come sooner if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls for new elections or if the current governing coalition falls.

In any case, Lapid’s run could dramatically change the Israeli political game, some analysts say.

“This is potentially an explosive transformation,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, the director of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious freedom in Israel.

A poll conducted by Hiddush found that 43 percent of the general Israeli public and 55 percent of the secular public welcome  Lapid’s entry into politics. One-third of the respondents said they would seriously consider voting for Lapid whether he forms a new party or joins an established one.

“This may be the beginning of the end of the dominion of the haredi parties,” Regev said.

But other analysts said Lapid will split the center and left-wing vote even further because he will be unable to make inroads into the right-religious bloc headed by Netanyahu.

“This could galvanize the same 20 to 30 seats that belong to this middle-class, secular, mostly Ashkenazi agenda,” said Guy Ben-Porat, a professor of public policy at Ben-Gurion University. “If you have four parties competing for the same votes, even if you divide it differently, it’s still the same.”

Ben-Porat said that unless Lapid can appeal to the center-right Likud, Sephardic and Orthodox voters, there will be no change in Israel’s political constellation.

Efforts to form a secular, centrist party have been tried, to little effect.

Lapid’s father led Shinui to an impressive 15 seats in the 2003 elections. Shinui promised secular marriage and sharp cuts in subsidies to the haredim. Neither happened, and by 2006 Shinui had split into a coalition of smaller parties, none of which have made it into the Knesset.

Lapid hopes that by tapping into last summer’s social protest movement he can ride an emerging political wave into the Knesset.

The protests, which brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets, focused on the high costs of living in Israel, particularly for young families. Netanyahu responded by forming a government committee led by economist Manuel Trajtenberg to suggest changes to Israel’s tax code, housing practices and social welfare system.

Several of those recommendations have become law, including increases in the marginal tax and corporate tax rates, and the extension of free child education to Israeli children beginning at age 3.

Part of Lapid’s appeal is that he is not a politician. He made the jump from journalism after the Knesset introduced a bill that would have required journalists to take a six-month “cooling-off period” between leaving journalism and entering politics; it was dubbed the Lapid Law. Lapid made his announcement before the law was finalized, and the measure has since been dropped.

Rahat criticized Lapid for trying to start his own party rather than joining an existing centrist party, such as Kadima, which Ariel Sharon formed in 2005 as a centrist breakaway from Likud.

Kadima is the Knesset’s largest faction with 28 seats — one more than Likud — though polls show Kadima would lose its lead if elections were held today.

Several Israeli analysts said Lapid might have more impact if he challenges Tzipi Livni for Kadima’s leadership rather than striking out on his own.

“We’ve seen these ‘flash’ parties come and go,” Rahat said. “They come and say the system is corrupt and they want to change it. But then either they disappear or collapse or split or become corrupt.”