[Israel Politics 101] Who is Yair Lapid and his party called Yesh Atid


The charisma and charm of Yair Lapid is well-known to Israeli audiences.  He is the son of the late Holocaust survivor and Knesset Member Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, who was best remembered for being a prolific journalist, sharp-tongued political pundit and critic. It wasn’t until his later years that he gained even more notoriety for leading the centrist “Shinui” party.

Yet the young and strikingly handsome Yair took a decidedly different direction, forging his own way as an actor, talk-show moderator, author of 8 books, writer of a weekly column for decades, successful entertainer and, finally, evening news anchor known to every Israeli household.

It was then, surprising to many, that in 2012 he decided to leave a budding career to enter the fiercely competitive world of Israeli politics, establishing his own party called “Yesh Atid” (“There is a Future”).  Despite his cultivating an immense grass-roots network, he, nonetheless, failed to topple the Netanyahu government in his first run but received an impressive 19 Knesset seats, higher than any other candidate at the time. Going against the advice of his personal advisors, he, from 2013-14, agreed to take on the role of Finance Ministry, the second most powerful ministry portfolio. Most opinions seem to indicate that he did not do anything particularly outstanding to change the country’s economy and the role, if anything, took him out of the spotlight which ultimately led to a hit in his rapidly rising popularity. This was most felt in the following election cycle when Yesh Atid only managed to garner 11 seats – a great disappointment to Lapid’s followers who honestly believed that even though he wasn’t formally running for prime minister that, with enough party votes, perhaps, he could emerge as the front runner.

Today, Lapid is still convinced that he is the man to unseat Netanyahu, and part of the reason is his belief that he has clearly understood the many frustrations of the country’s 70% secular Israelis who, for a long time, have been seeking a more centrist leader, one willing to break with the religious orthodox establishment. For that majority sector of the Israeli population, they long for a leader who will bring about a more pluralistic and equitable government, taking into account their rights and desires which they feel have been trampled on by the small but powerful minority of ultra-religious who have managed to hold onto the reins for too many years. 

Lapid’s strong centrist message includes full equality of women in high-profile jobs, all Israelis serving in the military, including the ultra-Orthodox sector and Arab sector, the implementation of two states for two peoples, while maintaining the large Israeli settlement blocks and ensuring the safety of Israel, egalitarian prayer between men and women and all streams of Judaism at the Western Wall, the institution of civil marriage in Israel, including same-sex couples, partial operation of public transportation on Shabbat (Saturday), the creation of greater religious pluralism and allowing non-Orthodox movements to perform religious conversions and weddings, something which is still not permitted.

Lapid’s goal is to build a governmental coalition which would not include any religious parties, thereby taking away all the power that they have wielded for decades. Of course, this could dramatically change the lives of many Israelis who are not permitted to be married by anyone other than an orthodox rabbi (meaning even conservative or reformed rabbis are unacceptable). It could also mean enlarging the definition of who is a Jew which could result in Jewish citizenship rights being offered to every stripe of Jew – even those who only have a Jewish father (by Jewish law, only individuals who have a Jewish mother are considered fully Jewish) or non-religious Jews who choose to be unaffiliated (by today’s standards, you must present a letter from your rabbi stating you are a bonafide Jew otherwise you may not receive citizenship for fear that you have converted to another faith despite your obvious Jewish ethnicity).

Yet despite all of the hope and change Lapid aspires to bring, it is not certain, according to most political pundits, that he can muster the support needed to replace Bibi as Israel’s man at the helm. Political newcomer, the formidable ex-IDF general Benny Gantz, heading up “Hosen L’Yisrael” (Israel Resilience Party) could be seen as a threat to Lapid’s aspirations, but it is believed that unless the two would merge their forces, neither, alone, would be able to overtake the ruling Likud party. Even together, it’s not certain that they would prevail.

Although there is talk of other smaller centrists parties joining forces to further boost the lacking numbers, some have said that Lapid is resistant to an alliance with Gantz whose military record and accomplishments, having served in ten wars/operations, greatly diminishes Lapid’s own military service which was, by comparison, lackluster since he only served as a field reporter with an office job during the Lebanon War and never was involved in combat. Yet others have speculated that there is the fear of being overshadowed by Gantz in such a partnership, and Lapid would never agree to take on the number two slot.

But with so many smaller centrist parties splintering the chances for a leader to emerge from one of them, Likud is still being predicted as the likely victor, despite gnawing and real threats of a pending criminal indictment against Netanyahu, almost certainly being handed down before the scheduled April 9th elections.

Perhaps Lapid’s biggest advantage is the already seven years of work he’s put into his Yesh Atid party, along with his continued promise to bring about a more equitable landscape for Israel’s almost nine million citizens.  Additionally, Lapid enjoys a fair bit of loyalty among his most fervent supporters who believe he is the only real choice for leading the country into a more democratic future. Either way, he will, most likely, have to consider doing whatever it takes in order to entice other candidates and parties to help him unseat King Bibi.