Yair Lapid, anchor of Israel’s most popular weekend news show, columnist in the best-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot, author, screenwriter and one-time actor, is the self-styled voice of what he calls the “42%.”
According to his calculation, this is the proportion of the population that is Jewish, secular and Zionist. It’s a political constituency for which he is now making a claim. After years of anticipation, the handsome celebrity, once voted the 36th-greatest Israeli, revealed on January 8 that he is leaving journalism for politics. Before he even announced what his party will be called and who its other candidates will be — if indeed he is planning on starting a new party — polls showed that he would win between seven and 20 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
“Once upon a time we were the most influential group in this country,” Lapid reminisced in a column last July, referring to the 42%. He lamented then that “because we’re the majority… we don’t deserve anything.” His entry into politics is premised on his ability to change that reality.
The opinion surveys that showed Lapid shaking up the political landscape have Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party more-or-less maintaining its current strength and Lapid taking most of his votes from Kadima — which actually has more seats than any other party in the current Knesset.
If this is accurate and Lapid’s popularity holds until the next election — scheduled for next February, but likely to take place sooner — analysts say that by entering politics, he will split the opposition vote and actually help return Likud to office.
“I think that Kadima is in deep trouble,” said Gideon Rahat, a Hebrew University political scientist and expert on political parties.
Kadima chairman Haim Ramon has called on Lapid to join his party, telling Army Radio that the “only way to remove Netanyahu from power is for Kadima, led by [Tzipi] Livni and Yair Lapid’s party, to run together.” But, responding to advice from members of the public on his Facebook page that such an arrangement could help him avoid pitfalls, he wrote, “If I was only looking for a way to protect myself from pitfalls, I would not have entered politics in the first place.”
In Rahat’s telling, Lapid’s decision to enter politics outside of Kadima is a blow to the already troubled party. Its lawmakers represent a broad political spectrum that has only barely contained bitter internal tensions. And as it was set up in 2005 largely to support the Gaza disengagement plan, it lacks the history, traditional voter base and defined ideology that keep traditional parties going during bad times. “This kind of party can disappear, not like Likud and Labor, which can become small but then hold on and revive,” Rahat said.
Some experts are slower to write off Kadima. Tel Aviv University political scientist Tamar Hermann believes that if Lapid does galvanize the secular Jewish demographic, this could lead to the likely victor in the next election, Likud, building an all-secular coalition. Hermann thinks that Likud may shun its current coalition partners, far-right Yisrael Beiteinu and the religious parties, when forming the next government. Kadima would lose a significant number of seats to Lapid, but survive to serve in the government along with Likud, Labor and Lapid’s party.