Yair Lapid’s Problems Will Begin the Moment He Runs Out of Miracles

Lapid’s stunning electoral success has led to dramatic changes in perceptions of Israel, inside and out - but great expectations inevitably lead to even greater disappointments.

Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party scored a spectacular political success in last Tuesday’s Israeli elections, but that’s nothing compared the miracles that they have accomplished ever since.

Think about it: Lapid has singlehandedly and dramatically improved Israel’s international image by coloring it as rational and center-bound rather than insular and right-wing bent; he has become the embodiment of potentially improved relations between Jerusalem and Washington; he has rejuvenated hopes that peace talks with the Palestinians are just around the corner and rekindled prayers that a two-state solution isn’t completely dead and buried; he has injected mainstream Israelis with a sense of renewal and optimism; he has shaken up a seemingly gridlocked political system and opened up avenues for coalitions and combinations that break long-held traditional molds; he has instilled hope that business will no longer be as usual and that the country, which he described on the campaign trail as “not functioning,” will somehow get back on track.

And all this, before coalition talks have even started, with no guarantee that Lapid will be in the government, and with his 18 Knesset candidates saying very little about their future plans and intentions.

Small wonder, then, that in a television interview broadcast in Israel on Monday night the uber-confident Lapid said that he “assumes” that he will run for prime minister in the next elections, and that he “assumes” that he will win. That rather arrogant statement, which only seven days ago would have been greeted with universal jeers and sneers, is undoubtedly being viewed now as a realistic prospect - or a credible threat, depending on your point of view.

Not bad for a former newspaper columnist, talk-show host and weekly news anchorman who was hitherto regarded as “Israel’s darling” (“mammy”, in local parlance) because of his nifty turn of phrase, his empathy for Mr. Average Israeli, his wide-eyed admiration for everything American and, not least of which, his dashing good looks. Known as a devoted middle-of-the-roader, a “soft” interviewer and a populist journalist who carefully avoids stepping on anyone’s toes, Lapid never seemed to be cut out for the essentially rough and ruthless, no-holds-barred world of Israeli politics.

But while ostensibly serious people failed to take Lapid seriously, it seems that he was made of tougher and more disciplined stuff than anyone had imagined; that not only had he hit a raw nerve in the Israeli psyche, but he was equipped with enough raw ambition to take advantage of it; that in an era of celebrity politics with reality-show rules, he was the right man, in the right place at the right time. And for all anyone knows, that might still hold true for the next elections as well.

Nonetheless, and contrary to appearances, Lapid is no messiah. He isn’t a miracle worker, a magician or an alchemist. He hasn’t created a new Israeli center or mitigated the strong rightwards drift of the Israeli body politic. In the 2009 elections, the Israeli center, led by Tzipi Livni, won 28 Knesset seats, while in 2012, Lapid, together with Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima, won only 21. In the meantime, whatever was left of the Likud-Beiteinu’s relatively moderate wing has been obliterated, while the even more radical religious-settler complex, represented by Naftali Bennet’s HaBayit Hayehudi party, has nearly doubled in strength.

Lapid can undoubtedly play a major role in improving Israel’s image abroad and the atmospherics of its relations with Washington – and perhaps even with the Palestinians – but the fact remains that any coalition set up by Netanyahu will inevitably be dominated by a majority of settlements-supporting, peace settlement-opposing members of Knesset.

Lapid may succeed in achieving some modest modifications in the rules and regulations governing the conscription of haredi men, but the thought that Israel can come anywhere close to achieving “equality of the burden,” as it is called, is no more than a pipe dream. And even if he does look out for the interests of the middle class, as promised, the government’s need to drastically cut the state budget and to extricate the Israeli economy from the doldrums of recession effectively means that average Israelis should count their lucky stars if their situation today doesn’t turn out to be much better than what it will be in a few years' time.

Lapid’s astonishing success in the ballot boxes as well as his charismatic personality have earned him almost adulatory media coverage since last Tuesday’s elections. His status as a media superstar has, incredibly, only been enhanced. His placement at the Archimedes’ point of coalition building – which was a bit more dominant when the blocs were placed at 60-60 – has created the illusion that it’s only a matter of time before his party’s popular positions are adopted by the Knesset, lock, stock and barrel.

But that’s not the way it’s going to happen. Harsh political realities are set to intervene, and the universal honeymoon with Lapid’s list will soon be over. His greatest challenge will be to gently ground skyrocketing expectations, to glide his supporters and well-wishers back down to earth, to fend off the deep disappointment that is bound to set in, to get down to the dreary and often dirty business without which this will all be remembered as much ado about nothing, a midwinter night’s dream, another promise that, as always, ends in a fizzle.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

AP