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.”
In 2008, Lapid returned to Los Angeles as a keynote speaker at a star-studded event honoring Milchan. In his speech he thanked Milchan for “the many things we don’t know” about his work for Israel, apparently hinting to the movie producer’s rumored ties with Israeli intelligence services.
Yair Lapid’s ties with the American Jewish community began to take shape last year, after he announced his intention to enter politics and upon publicly taking on the issue of religious pluralism in Israel. “We saw him as someone who has this issue on his radar and wanted to build a relationship with him early in the game,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. The group invited Lapid to speak at their conference last May, and Lapid, though already in full campaign mode, agreed to make a 24 hour visit and attend the Rabbinical Assembly conference in Atlanta. By the time he landed in the U.S., Lapid had learned that Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a last-minute political maneuver, called off the early elections.
In his speech Lapid touched on all the right chords. He told the crowd of Conservative rabbis they are “the last line of defense that believes that Judaism shouldn’t be the jailhouse of ideas, but the liberator of ideas,” and promised to do all in his power “to make it feasible to women, Conservative or Reform, to pray at the wailing wall, wearing their prayer shawls.” Lapid also argued that “the majority of Israelis are actually Conservative, they just don’t know it.”
“We look forward to working with him on these issues,” said Rabbi Schonfeld, who described the leader of Yesh Atid party as “a very bright, possibly brilliant charismatic individual.”
Ties Lapid forged with members of the American Jewish community throughout the years proved helpful when he embarked on his political career. In just one month in 2012, Lapid raised nearly $30,000 from American Jewish supporters and Israeli expatriates living in the United States. One of the notable donors is leading Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.