Lapid cartoon - Amos Biderman - January 2012
Photo by Amos Biderman
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fter four years of working weekends, tonight Yair Lapid will be able to relax at home and enjoy a family meal. We can take it that the television set in the Lapids' living room will be tuned to the weekly newsmagazine of Channel 2, which Lapid anchored until last Friday, and that a panel of experts will analyze his column in the weekend magazine of the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. In this week's column, Lapid explains why he decided to enter politics.

Last Wednesday, before the program that turned out to be his last, Lapid scheduled a meeting with the CEO of the Channel 2 News Company, Avi Weiss. The meeting was set for the Sunday after the program. Did Lapid already know on Friday that this would be his last program as anchor? Employees of the News Company said they did not notice anything different.

"We didn't have a clue," a News Company employee said. "We knew there was an agreement between him and Weiss and that things were organized. There would not be a situation in which he would suddenly leave on the eve of the election campaign in order to run for the Knesset. But there was no sign of anything."

Lapid did not announce his departure live and did not bid a fond farewell to the viewers. After the program he went to his home in the upscale Ramat Aviv section of Tel Aviv. Waiting for him were his wife, Lihi, his mother, Shulamit, and close friends of his late father, Yosef (Tommy) Lapid: former prime minister Ehud Olmert; former editor in chief of the newspaper Maariv, Amnon Dankner; former director of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Yitzhak Livni, and their wives. Over hummus and sahlab, Lapid told the group that he wanted their advice.

The prevailing view around the table was that if Lapid was absolutely determined to realize his ambition of entering politics, he should act with probity and not leave an opening for allegations that he exploited the television program to promote himself. The latest polls, which give a Lapid-led party up to 20 Knesset seats, led the group to believe that Knesset legislators who wanted to impose a year-long cooling-off period on journalists before they can enter politics, would now go into high gear and would be joined by opposition parties.

The group was also aware of the negative consequences for him of giving up the ultra-prime-time television slot: Lapid would have to forgo what he liked doing most, along with the high salary, for an indefinite period.

Lapid agreed with the analysis and asked the group to keep the meeting secret. They asked him how he felt, now that the decision had been made. "I am perfectly calm," he replied.

One of the questions that came up in the discussion was whether Lapid is cut out for politics. Is he tough enough for that cruel and dirty occupation? The immediate comparison is with his father, who also left journalism for a career in politics. However, Tommy Lapid was aggressive, a superb debater who liked to stir up controversy and quarrels. Yair is quieter, cautious, a master of self-control and beloved by the masses.

"The people's favorite, the center of the sublime consensus," the journalist Ron Maiberg wrote of him in 2005.

His father's son

Lapid's acquaintances describe him as a family man who is very close to his wife, his mother and his sister Merav. His meeting with his father's old friends showed how close he has stayed to the family legacy. Lapid often joined his father at such meetings in the past, and he stayed in touch with the group after Tommy Lapid's death, in 2008. After his father died, Yair Lapid wrote "Memories after My Death," in which he steps into his father's shoes and tells the elder Lapid's life story in the first person.

The transition to politics turns out not to have been a huge departure from his work as a journalist, at least as the young Lapid has his father tell it. He says he dealt with the same political problems as when he was a columnist, met with the same journalists and the same politicians, continued to speak on the radio and appear on television, and was invited to the same events and saw the same faces at the same receptions.

It's possible that the junior Lapid believes truly and sincerely that politics and media are two sides of the same coin.

In contrast to his assertive and opinionated father, Yair Lapid is less about what his opinions are. People close to him say it's enough to read his newspaper column to know exactly what he thinks. However, his journalistic style rarely offers an incisive bottom line; it usually ends with vague comments.

For example, in a column from last summer in which he expounded on a social contract he wrote, "We will not break the rules of the democratic game; we will not do anything for the present at the expense of the future; we will not claim to know what is in anyone's heart; we will not abuse the system."

Anyone can identify with this platform, but what does it mean?

Friends in high places

Lapid's choice of Olmert as an adviser is puzzling. Even if one can understand Olmert's attitude toward the son of his old friend as a continuation of his relations with the father, the fact is that the former prime minister is now on trial and just last week was hit with another serious indictment, one that alleges bribe-taking during his term as mayor of Jerusalem.

Why Lapid, who wants to be perceived as a fresh new hope, is seeking the advice of the insider Olmert, especially with the new cloud hanging over his head, is not self-evident. On top of all that is the fact that Olmert's party, Kadima, stands to lose the most from a Lapid-led challenge.

Lapid's turn to politics surprised no one. Friends often asked him why he hadn't made the move already. Many of these conversations, which were held in private homes or in beachfront cafes, focused on the absence of true leadership in the country and on the yearning for a "responsible adult."

Lapid's friends say that it was clear he was interested in politics but that he never addressed the possibility that he would enter the political arena.

His intentions were the object of persistent media guesswork, but he consistently denied harboring political ambitions.

Just last June, in the wake of yet another report that he intended to run for the Knesset, Lapid wrote on his Facebook page, "Will the media outlets that keep harping on this nonsense be happy or not to see Channel 2 and Yedioth hurt? How come everyone knows my plans better than I do?"

"In short, the report is absolute hogwash," he added.

Even though he left television, Lapid will continue to write the opening column for Yedioth Ahronoth's weekend magazine. The column is thought to be among the most widely read in the country.

"That doesn't count - a lot of MKs write columns," an acquaintance of Lapid's said.

Who is likely to be in Lapid's inner circle? Two names that come up repeatedly are those of Herzliya mayor Yael German and Rabbi Shai Piron, a rabbi at Petah Tikva's hesder yeshiva (combining religious studies with military service). German stated in the past that she would join Lapid if he entered politics. Piron, who has worked to foster understanding between observant and secular Jews, is a close friend, with whom Lapid shares an interest in education.

Another name mentioned is Prof. Daniel Friedmann, who was minister of justice in the Olmert government. Friedmann declined to comment.

The candidate for political adviser is Uri Shani, who was the bureau chief of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and an adviser to senior figures in Kadima. Advertising exec Yoram Bauman, from the PR firm of Bauman Bar Rivnai, is likely to be the campaign mastermind.

Other friends of Lapid who have been at meetings that dealt with politics include Dimona mayor Meir Cohen, Bat Yam mayor Shlomi Lahiani, former Gilboa Regional Council head Danny Atar and the former chief public defender, Prof. Kenneth Mann. A former CEO of the media company Reshet, Yohanan Tsengan, and the company's owner, Udi Angel, are also friends of Lapid's.

Lapid also has some well-heeled friends and acquaintances. Among them are Dani Toktali, who formerly held the controlling interest in Aryeh Insurance; Shimon Weintraub, the founder of Brack Capital; and high-tech entrepreneur Hillel Kobrinsky. Even if they do not reach into their pockets, they will certainly be able to put Lapid in touch with potential donors.

However, the major question is whether Lapid will be able to recruit big names to his party. This is crucial for him, since Lapid lacks experience outside the media realm and has never held a managerial position. Until now, he was unable to invest serious effort in forming a party, but now he will likely go about the task in earnest.

Kadima takes a drubbing

Lapid's announcement this week that he was plunging into politics heightened tension rampant in the Knesset corridors and within the parties. Speculation about early elections is rife. Labor made headlines with two surprise recruits, Noam Shalit - the father of the recently returned abducted soldier - and Moshe Mizrahi, a former senior police officer.

The effect on Kadima was brutal. The party took an immediate drubbing in the polls and party figures from the internal opposition, such as MK Avi Dichter, assailed party leader Tzipi Livni. Livni herself announced on the Channel 2 News that she would soon declare primaries and that it was premature to write off the party. Kadima is likely to undergo a rough period until the leader is elected.

Lapid's task now is to transform a change of consciousness into a change of reality. He will be out to see how many Knesset seats can be had by starting with high public popularity and predictions of 20 seats. As Lapid surely knows, Israelis love nothing more than to anoint princes only to bring them back down to earth.