I joked earlier that Yair Lapid is, essentially, the main character of Aaron Sorkin’s as-yet unwritten series about Israeli politics. By which I did not mean that he would inevitably find the key to the stalemate in the Middle East – as President Bartlet so memorably managed in The West Wing – but that he is attractive, charming, media savvy and media friendly (he is, of course, a former journalist), and that above all, he comes across as largely sincere in his beliefs.
As West Wing fans will know, Sorkin’s politicians tend to be the heroes, championing the right and good. If Lapid comes anywhere close to this, that surely is good news for Israel and for all those who want to see it thrive and build a peaceful, stable future with its neighbours.
On Tuesday Lapid’s Yesh Atid party claimed 19 seats, more than expected and enough to make it the second biggest player. In the run-up to the Israeli election, when Lapid’s chances of winning a substantial number of seats seemed dim, especially against the trajectory of the right-wing, uncompromisingly pro-settlement Naftali Bennet and his Jewish Home party, one of the questions was whether this untested politician could walk the walk quite as well as he could talk the talk.
Lapid is a smooth, modern politician in the Obama mould, able to make rousing speeches and engage with the everyday voter and their concerns. He is corruption-free, comes across as affable, and is well-known to voters by way of a regularly broadcast slot. And like Barack Obama, his perspective has been shaped by his personal story; he too published a memoir, Memories After My Death, telling the tale of his Hungarian immigrant father’s journey.
Israel, in common with most electorates that invest disproportionate faith in the abilities of one individual to transform the political landscape, has been disappointed before. It is not entirely surprising that after various well-intentioned dreamers ultimately failed to bring about real change, many Israelis turned instead to more pragmatic, expedient politicians like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yet Lapid, with his commitment to working with both the most staunchly religious and the most ardently secular, and his desire to work not just for a two-state solution but for domestic progress, belongs in that first category. His victory speech – “I hope to change things for the better. For 30 years, this country has been about left versus right. Now we want to change things on the inside: national service, education, housing, a middle class that cannot finish the month” – could have been written by Sorkin, or spoken by Obama.
He is an idealist – a clever, politically attuned one for sure, but he is not a career politician (although in true Israeli style, he is the son of one). Enjoying success and stability as a journalist, he did not have to enter the muddy waters of Israeli politics.
He has not been particularly vocal in terms of foreign policy – although he vowed last year not to join any government opposed to diplomatic negotiations on the peace process – but the consensus is that he is pro-peace, and the suggestion is that he is at least aware of international opinion and how Israel can damage itself with settlements or stubbornness.
That is not to say he is only a naïve dreamer; he is aware there is no perfect solution – “we’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with” – but appears at least to believe an imperfect one is possible.
Perhaps Lapid is no different from the scores of other ambitious and self-serving politicians who have gone before him, flying in on an “outsider” tagline only to become as “insider” as the rest. Perhaps – and as yet it is unclear whether he will enter the coalition or become the main opposition player – all the hopes and aspirations shared on the campaign trail, from drafting the strictly Orthodox into army service to building a fairer economy, will disintegrate once the messy business of governing gets in the way.
Only time will tell. But, after months of scaremongering about a sharp rightward turn for Israel, it can only be positive that a moderate centrist who still believes in all that “hopey changey” stuff has emerged as kingmaker. For a country founded on the dreams of figures like Theodor Herzl, Rav Kook and David Ben Gurion, Lapid’s rise can only be a good thing for Israel and for the wider region.
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