As Israel heads to the polls later this year, there is a new sheriff in town, at least for a little. This week, we unpack everything you want to know about Israel’s new prime minister:
- Who is Yair Lapid?
- How did he become the prime minister?
- Will he remain as Israel’s prime minister beyond these four months?
Who is Yair Lapid?
Lapid was a well-known figure in Israel long before he became prime minister, thanks in large part to all the years he spent as a popular talk show host.
He was born in Tel Aviv in 1963 (that makes him 58 years old) and grew up both in Israel and London. His father, Tommy Lapid, a Holocaust survivor, was a journalist and politician who once served as Israel’s justice minister. His mother, Shulamit Lapid, is a novelist and playwright.
Lapid dropped out of high school after struggling with learning disabilities and did not attend college. He has given conflicting reports of what unit in the IDF he initially served in before being transferred to the military’s newspaper due to an asthma attack.
In his 20s, Lapid worked as a columnist for various newspapers and transitioned over to television, eventually hosting several popular talk shows.
By the time Lapid announced he was leaving journalism and entering politics in 2012, he had “established himself as a sort of cultural renaissance man,” Lahav Harkov of The Jerusalem Post explained.
“He wrote the lyrics to 22 songs, some of which were pop hits; he acted in a few movies, including as a romantic interest; he wrote 10 books, mostly novels. He was also an amateur Thai boxer and a fixture on the Tel Aviv club scene.”
Lapid founded the centrist Yesh Atid (meaning, “There is a future”) party in 2012, which is the second-largest political party in Israel today.
Lapid’s first term in the Knesset “was marked by constant fighting with the haredi parties over IDF service, matters of religion and state, welfare reform, and more,” Harkov wrote.
“Haredi rabbis, politicians and media railed against him with biblical and liturgical terminology, calling him Amalek, and wishing to ‘remove a malicious government from the Land,” she added.
In 2013, Yesh Atid won 19 seats in the parliament, and Lapid became finance minister in the Netanyahu-led government.
He served as finance minister in 2013 but was fired a year later by Netanyahu. In the 2021 elections, Yesh Atid won the second-highest number of seats in the Knesset after the Likud party. When Netanyahu (as the leader of the Likud party) failed to form a coalition, Lapid was given the mandate to do so.
Lapid then did what many had thought to be impossible: he succeeded in forming a coalition of eight ideologically-diverse parties, including left-wing, right-wing, centrist and Islamist parties.
Lapid reached a power-sharing agreement with Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina party, in which Bennett took the first turn as prime minister.
According to an agreement that was made by the different parties in the government, Lapid was supposed to become prime minister in August 2023 and serve as foreign minister until then.
But the agreement also stipulated that if the government were brought down prematurely, Lapid would automatically become prime minister, which is precisely what happened with the recent collapse of the coalition.
A few hours before Lapid took over as prime minister, he went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. “There, I promised my late father that I will always keep Israel strong and capable of defending itself and protecting its children,” Lapid tweeted.
Lapid is married to journalist Lihi Lapid and has two children with her, and he has another son from his first marriage. He attends the Daniels Centers for Progressive Judaism, a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv.
How long will Lapid be prime minister and what’s next?
Lapid’s term as prime minister could become an anecdote in history as Israel heads to the polls in November for the fifth national elections in 3.5 years.
However, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy notes that Lapid “is aiming for a term of his own via the November election. Moreover, he may stay on as caretaker prime minister for quite a bit longer given the real possibility that no government is formed.”
A poll released on Sunday by the public broadcaster Kan found that Likud is forecast to be the largest party with 35 seats, followed by Yesh Atid with 22 seats. Netanyahu’s bloc would receive 60 seats (of the 120-seat Knesset), according to the poll, which is one seat short of the majority needed to form a governing coalition.
Another recent poll conducted by Panels Politics found that Netanyahu’s bloc would get 59 seats, and previous polls have given the Netanyahu bloc 61 seats. Meanwhile, in a recent poll from Channel 13, Netanyahu led Lapid as preferred prime minister by 45% to 32%.
Political consultants Simon Davies and Joshua Hantman predicted that the two campaigns’ messaging will sound something like this:
“Lapid will hope to frame the choice as a broad, stable and ‘sane’ government, led by him, versus a narrow, backward-looking and extremist government led by Netanyahu, relying on Ben-Gvir and the Religious Zionism party.”
“Netanyahu will be looking to invert the choice: a broad, stable government led by him, versus an unstable, weak and dangerous government led by Lapid, relying on the Arab Joint List.”
Meanwhile, Tibon predicted that the main focus of Lapid’s campaign will be his achievement of creating Israel’s most ideologically-diverse government.
“Lapid is going to say, ‘I did the impossible once, and, if you vote for me again, I will find a way — as unlikely as it seems in the moment — to create a stable government in Israel and put an end to this era of instability,” he said.
While Davies and Hantman underscored the importance of framing and messaging to drive the outcome of elections, Tibon offered a more sobering perspective about the limits of any campaign strategy:
“This is the fifth election in 3.5 years. In the four previous elections, the results were pretty similar…At the end of the day, this is something that Israelis have long thought about. We’ve had four election cycles to discuss with ourselves, our friends and our families how we are going to vote and for whom and why…I don’t expect big movements in any direction.”
What are Lapid’s policy priorities?
In his first speech after becoming Prime Minister, Lapid laid out a series of beliefs that he said Israelis of different ideologies agreed on.
“We all have the same goal: a Jewish, democratic, liberal, big, strong, advanced, and prosperous Israel,” the new prime minister asserted.
“The great Israeli question is actually why, in a period in which we have wide national agreement on all the important topics, the levels of hate and anxiety within Israeli society are so high? Why is polarization more threatening than ever?” Lapid added.
(The Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman has made the same argument that Israelis agree on most issues, yet are more polarized and divided than ever.)
Lapid offered the following explanation of this paradox: “In Israel, extremism doesn’t come from the streets to politics. It’s the opposite. It flows like lava from politics to the streets. The political sphere has become more and more extreme, violent and vicious, and it is dragging Israeli society along with it.”
In addition to promoting unity across political differences, Lapid is also known for his support of limiting the Chief Rabbinate’s control. For example, he is in favor of increased public transportation on Shabbat and legalizing civil marriage.
“I’m not telling you what to do on the Sabbath, and you won’t tell me,” Lapid has said.
He has also been outspoken on the issue of military exemptions for Haredi students to pursue full-time Torah study, arguing in favor of a more equal sharing of this responsibility.
“If your name is Moshe and you’re an 80-year-old grandfather who fought in all of Israel’s wars, you’ll receive a [monthly] stipend of NIS 2,432 [$681]. But if your name is Moishe and you’re a 19-year-old yeshiva student dodging the IDF draft, you’ll get NIS 8,000 [$2,240] from the state,” Lapid has argued.
(For more on this, check out our podcast on exemptions from military service for Haredim.)
Lapid is also known as a proponent of strong ties between Israel and World Jewry. As foreign minister, “Lapid sought to set a different tone with the U.S. than under previous Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” according to an American Jewish Committee (AJC) blog post.
He “sought to repair what he saw as ‘mistakes’ that were made in the U.S.-Israel relationship and promised to fix them. For example, as foreign minister, he opposed legalizing the Israeli settlement outpost Evyatar, a move that he said could harm Israel’s relationship with the Biden administration,” the AJC added.
At the same time, Lapid is also a vocal opponent of BDS, saying of the movement in 2015, “Criticism is constructive for our society, but there is a significant difference between criticism and defaming IDF officers and soldiers abroad. That is not criticism; that is undermining the foundations of the state.”
Finally, Lapid favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2019, as co-leader of the Blue and White party, Lapid laid out his vision for peace with the Palestinians.
“We need to separate from the Palestinians, and we need to do it on four terms that to me are essential,” Lapid said.
Lapid’s terms included Israel remaining in security control of the West Bank; the Jordan Valley remaining in Israeli hands; no right of return for Palestinian refugees; and Jerusalem remaining undivided “because countries do not divide their own capitals.”
Lapid and Yesh Atid are mostly popular with Israel’s secular middle class. His supporters are attracted to his centrist approach and his ability to form Israel’s “Change Coalition,” the most ethnically and ideologically diverse coalition in Israeli history, seemingly against all odds. Lapid also enjoys popularity as a celebrity and journalist that Israelis knew and trusted for many years.
On the other hand, critics of Lapid point out that he never attended college and that he lacks significant military experience, questioning whether someone who did not have a combat role in the IDF is fit to be prime minister.
Additionally, Netanyahu and the Likud campaign accused Lapid of being unable to form a government without support from the Arab Joint List. Last week, Lapid said that he would not form a coalition with the support of the Joint List, The Jerusalem Post reported.
Meanwhile, senior Palestinian officials said they view Lapid as similar to any other Israeli prime minister.
“I don’t believe we will see a dramatic change, whether Netanyahu, or Lapid, or Bennett is in charge,” Palestinian official Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of the executive leadership of the Fatah party and the Palestine Liberation Organization, told The Times of Israel.
Originally Published Jul 26, 2022 12:02AM EDT