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Israel’s Yair Lapid: From TV anchor to coalition architect

Yair Lapid is a former opposition leader and television anchor who has forged a coalition alliance that will, if approved by parliament Sunday, unseat Israel‘s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Lapid founded his centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party in 2012, some dismissed him as the latest in a series of media stars seeking to transform his celebrity into political success.

But his fiercely secularist party finished second with 17 seats in March elections, Israel’s fourth inconclusive national vote in less than two years.

He was mandated last month to form a government after Netanyahu failed in his own efforts to build a post-election government.

Lapid cobbled together a coalition of bitter ideological rivals, ranging from right-wing religious nationalists to conservative Muslim Arab citizens of Israel, and the Knesset will either approve or scupper his bloc on Sunday.

His improbable alliance is all the more remarkable given recent intercommunal clashes between Jewish and Arab citizens, sparked by the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

Under the coalition deal, Lapid would assume the premiership only after a two-year stint at the top by his main coalition ally, nationalist hardliner Naftali Bennett.

Despite having engineered the alliance, 57-year-old Lapid would initially serve as foreign minister.

Voice of experience
A former news anchor known for his chiselled good looks, Lapid is the Tel Aviv-born son of the fiercely secular former justice minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, another journalist who left the media to enter politics.

His mother, Shulamit, is a novelist, playwright and poet.

Lapid was a newspaper columnist and has also published a dozen books. His role as a presenter on Channel 2 TV boosted his stardom.

An amateur boxer and martial artist, he once featured on lists of Israel’s most desirable men.

Yesh Atid had claimed a surprising 19 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament back in 2013 polls, establishing it as a credible force in politics.

The party joined the centrist Blue and White alliance formed in 2019 under the leadership of former military chief Benny Gantz.

Blue and White then battled Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud in three elections in less than a year.

When Gantz decided last spring to enter a Netanyahu-led coalition, citing the need for unity as the coronavirus pandemic was gathering pace, Lapid bolted.

He accused Gantz of breaching a fundamental promise Blue and White had made to its supporters: that it would fight to oust Netanyahu.

In an interview with AFP in September, Lapid said Gantz had naively believed that Netanyahu would work collaboratively within the coalition.

“I told (Gantz), ‘I’ve worked with Netanyahu. Why don’t you listen to the voice of experience… He is 71 years old. He is not going to change’,” Lapid said.

After exiting Blue and White, Lapid took his seat in parliament as the head of Yesh Atid and leader of the opposition.

He described the short-lived Netanyahu-Gantz government as “a ridiculous coalition”, in which cabinet ministers who disliked each other did not bother to communicate.

He also predicted the coalition would collapse in December, which it did, amid bitter acrimony between Netanyahu and Gantz.

If the Knesset gives the green light, attention will turn to how far the even more unwieldy government engineered by Lapid can endure before ideological tensions boil to the surface.

While he is the master behind the arrangement, Lapid has kept a low profile, presenting an even-keeled image of a man who aims to “unite” Israel.

“The Israeli public deserves a functioning and responsible government which places the good of the country at the top of its agenda,” he said in a statement prior to Sunday’s parliamentary vote.

“That’s what this unity government has been formed to do.”

Israel to swear in government, ending Netanyahu’s long rule

Israel is set to swear in a new government on Sunday that will send Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the opposition after a record 12 years in office and a political crisis that sparked four elections in two years.

Naftali Bennett, the head of a small ultranationalist party, will take over as prime minister. But if he wants to keep the job, he will have to maintain an unwieldy coalition of parties from the political right, left and center.

The eight parties, including a small Arab faction that is making history by sitting in the ruling coalition, are united in their opposition to Netanyahu and new elections but agree on little else. They are likely to pursue a modest agenda that seeks to reduce tensions with the Palestinians and maintain good relations with the U.S. without launching any major initiatives.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament and is expected to vigorously oppose the new government. If just one faction bolts, it could lose its majority and would be at risk of collapse, giving him an opening to return to power.

The new government is promising a return to normalcy after a tumultuous two years that saw four elections, an 11-day Gaza war last month and a coronavirus outbreak that devastated the economy before it was largely brought under control by a successful vaccination campaign.

The driving force behind the coalition is Yair Lapid, a political centrist who will become prime minister in two years, if the government lasts that long.

Israel’s parliament, known as the Knesset, will convene to vote on the new government at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT). It is expected to win a narrow majority of at least 61 votes in the 120-member assembly, after which it will be sworn in. The government plans to hold its first official meeting later this evening.

It’s unclear if Netanyahu will attend the ceremony or when he will move out of the official residence. He has lashed out at the new government in apocalyptic terms and accused Bennett of defrauding voters by running as a right-wing stalwart and then partnering with the left.

Netanyahu’s supporters have held angry protests outside the homes of rival lawmakers, who say they have received death threats naming their family members. Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service issued a rare public warning about the incitement earlier this month, saying it could lead to violence.

Netanyahu has condemned the incitement while noting that he has also been a target.

His place in Israeli history is secure, having served as prime minister for a total of 15 years – more than any other, including the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.

Netanyahu began his long rule by defying the Obama administration, refusing to freeze settlement construction as it tried unsuccessfully to revive the peace process. Relations with Israel’s closest ally grew even rockier when Netanyahu vigorously campaigned against President Barack Obama’s emerging nuclear deal with Iran, even denouncing it in an address to the U.S. Congress.

But he suffered few if any consequences from those clashes and was richly rewarded by the Trump administration, which recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, helped broker normalization agreements with four Arab states and withdrew the U.S. from the Iran deal.

Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a world-class statesman, boasting of his close ties with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has also cultivated ties with Arab and African countries that long shunned Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians.

But he has gotten a far chillier reception from the Biden administration and is widely seen as having undermined the long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.

His reputation as a political magician has also faded at home, where he has become a deeply polarizing figure. Critics say he has long pursued a pide-and-conquer strategy that aggravated rifts in Israeli society between Jews and Arabs and between his close ultra-Orthodox allies and secular Jews.

In November 2019, he was indicted for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He refused calls to step down, instead lashing out at the media, judiciary and law enforcement, going so far as to accuse his political opponents of orchestrating an attempted coup. Last year, protesters began holding weekly rallies across the country calling on him to resign.

Netanyahu remains popular among the hard-line nationalists who dominate Israeli politics, but he could soon face a leadership challenge from within his own party. A less polarizing Likud leader would stand a good chance of assembling a coalition that is both farther to the right and more stable than the government that is set to be sworn in.