TV Host Shakes Up Israeli Politics

Yair Lapid Taps Dissatisfaction With Traditional Parties

By Liam Hoare

Published January 10, 2012, issue of January 20, 2012.
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Prior to his announcement that he was leaving Israel’s Channel 2 to run for the Knesset, Yair Lapid, a popular Israeli media personality and son of the late Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, must have been encouraged by a Geocartography poll that placed an unnamed, hypothetical party led by him second, with 20 seats, behind only a diminished Likud party.

Yair Lapid
getty images
Yair Lapid

Whether he starts his own party or joins with an existing one like Kadima, Lapid represents a mainstream political position held by the kind of cosmopolitan Israelis galvanized last summer by the social justice protests and concerned about the erosion of the religion-state divide.

But the metamorphosis from journalist to politician is fraught with difficulties and has had a mixed history, even during periods when — as in Israel and the United States today — confidence in elected officials could not be much lower.

Two examples from the United Kingdom illustrate this point well. In 1997, after 18 years in government, the Conservative Party was slouching toward almost certain defeat, having been worn down by repeated scandal, salacious and otherwise. Martin Bell — a famed BBC war correspondent who had sustained injury in Sarajevo while reporting on the genocide of Bosnian Muslims — ran for a Parliament seat on an anti-sleaze agenda, pleading to serve only one term if elected.

That year, Bell ran against Neil Hamilton, who had been implicated in the cash-for-questions affair. The Guardian newspaper alleged that he had taken money in brown paper envelopes from Harrods’s owner, Mohamed al-Fayed, in return for asking questions during debates in the Commons on his behalf.

Despite the fact that Bell declared his intent to run only 24 days prior to the vote, he ousted Hamilton easily, taking 60% of the vote. He dutifully stood down at the next election, in 2001, despite the BBC reports of “strong support in the constituency for him to carry on.”

On the one hand, as an example for Lapid, Bell’s victory offers a hopeful precedent of a campaign constructed on a public perception of the man as an impartial and honest outsider who had proved himself to be a trustworthy and truthful journalist. And yet, his success in 1997 was exaggerated by the fact that his main sources of opposition — Labor and the Liberal Democrats — entered into an electoral pact in the district and did not field candidates.

For Lapid, the case of Esther Rantzen may prove more instructive. At the height of the expenses scandal that rocked the Westminster Village in the summer of 2009 (when Members of Parliament fiddled with their expenses in order to purchase, among other things, moat cleaning, pornographic movies and an elaborate duck house modeled on a Swedish manor), Jewish journalist Rantzen — famed for her consumer advocacy and charitable work in the field of child protection — announced that she was to run for Parliament in the constituency of Luton South.

Margaret Moran, who The Daily Telegraph reported had claimed about $35,000 (£22,500) for treating dry rot in her designated second home, in Southampton, located 100 miles southwest of her constituency, had vacated the seat. Rantzen told reporters that she was standing because “it’s important and it may just be that the British public still [has an appetite for change and a cold breath of fresh air.”

By Election Day, public anger toward corrupt MPs appeared to have dissipated, as the debate pivoted toward the economy, unemployment and the national debt. Rantzen ended up finishing fourth behind the three major parties with less than 5% of the vote, and only a few hundred votes ahead of the far-right British National Party candidate.

Sarfraz Manzoor, writing in the Guardian, observed that “Luton is still a town of tribes, a place where the old allegiances of Labour and Conservative still matter and a town not so easily impressed by outsiders.” Of Rantzen, Manzoor concluded, “Speaking to people during the campaign I got the sense they never truly accepted or believed she was one of them.”

Rantzen’s fate goes to show that while the right message can easily capture the public’s imagination, holding and maintaining it without a well-organized political machine backing a candidate is more difficult. Bell succeeded in a brief campaign of only 24 days; Rantzen ran independently for almost a year and ran out of steam in the process. Given that the next Israeli elections could occur as late as February 2013, Lapid would face the same struggle to sustain momentum.

Moreover, Lapid will have to — as Rantzen failed to do — overcome a polity rife with division and tribalism, and an electoral system where the many facets of Israeli political and religious society are already divided up among a cornucopia of factions parties.

The Geocartography poll appears to indicate that Lapid’s tentative support is drawn from all of Israel’s mainstream political institutions, ranging from Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud on the right through Kadima and onto Labor and Meretz on the left. Such a broad coalition is ultimately fragile, for come election time these fragments could very well decide to retreat to their natural political safe havens.

Logistically, then, Lapid faces an uphill struggle. Benjamin Netanyahu noted this in the context of his dismissal of Lapid as a political force: “Until elections are declared, you don’t really exist. You roam around the country, looking for voters, but you can wear off. A political figure is like a start-up: You need to maintain the status until the very last minute”.

The entry of a new force into Israeli politics — particularly one that seeks to moderate and formulate a broad coalition of supporters — is far from a bad thing, given both the lurch the nation’s politics has taken to the right and the sclerotic state of the peace process. But Netanyahu is correct to the extent that this poll ought not to be taken as a sure-fire signal of future success, not for Lapid or for any new political party that seeks to redraw Israeli’s political landscape.

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer and graduate of University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

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