Washington — Few in America have a close acquaintance with Yair Lapid, Israel’s new political kingmaker and a top contender for the post of foreign minister in a new Israeli government soon to be formed.
Lapid, who emerged as the nation’s new political star, winning 19 Knesset seats in the January 22 elections, has spent time working in the United States and has taken on the issue of religious pluralism in Israel, a topic dear to many American Jewish activists. But he is still a great unknown, especially to policymakers and analysts trying to assess his views on the Middle East and the Israeli – Palestinian peace process.
Lapid is no stranger to Washington, although he had little contact on issues relating to foreign policy. He attended the 2012 policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but spoke about his book rather than about policy. Lapid also visited Washington several times when his son spent a semester in the city.
Perhaps his most important point of contact for American politics is Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster and political strategist. Mellman worked on Lapid’s campaign in Israel and was praised in the Israeli press for his contribution to the successful campaign.
In 1997, after leaving a lucrative position as host of a popular entertainment show on Israeli TV, Lapid moved to Los Angeles, where he took on a job as head of New Regency Films’ TV division. The offer was made to Lapid by Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, who was a close friend of Lapid’s late father, Yosef (Tommy) Lapid. Milchan had taken on the young Lapid as his protégé and Lapid later credited the time he spent with Milchan for his good English, which could now come in handy as a top Israeli cabinet member.
Less than a year after moving to Los Angeles, Lapid decided to return to Israel. In his book “Memories After My Death,” a posthumous biography of his father, he recalls making the decision after hearing of the March 1997 terror attack in a Tel Aviv cafe his father used to frequent. “I remembered this was your coffee shop,” he told his father on the phone from Los Angeles. “Yes, I just left before it happened,” Yosef Lapid replied. After a short pause his son announced: “I’m coming home.”