In a matter of months, Yair Lapid has turned from heartthrob television news anchor into a rising star of Israeli politics, leading a new centrist party into elections on Jan. 22.
Lapid, 49, may prove an attractive coalition partner for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, which is widely forecast to lead the next government.
Opinion polls show Lapid’s Yesh Atid party could win between six and nine seats in the 120-member parliament, a level which can earn coalition representation as Israeli governments invariably rely on small parties for a majority.
Lapid’s late father, Yosef, tried as a justice minister to curb the political power of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. Now the son is gaining popularity with younger voters by promising to relieve a housing shortage and abolish military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students.
Interviewed at his Tel Aviv home, the former athlete spoke of a widening rift between Israel’s secular majority and a growing ultra-Orthodox minority. “I feel we’re at risk that a whole generation of young Israelis - who went to the army, work hard, pay taxes - one day will look around and say hey, this country is going nowhere,” he said.
About 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men are engaged in full-time religious studies, keeping them out of the work force and burdening the Israeli economy. “I’m just going to tell them, listen, we have to change the deal. I’ve created this party as an attempt to become a game changer,” said Lapid.
Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions are made for most Arab citizens as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.
With about three weeks to go before the national vote, Lapid’s party is neck-and-neck in the polls with another fledgling centrist faction, Hatenuah, established by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.