Yair Lapid's Quest to Be the Epitome of the New Israeli

In a media career that spanned three decades, 48-year-old Lapid has done everything to epitomize the 'new Israeli' and, since there is no clear definition of what that is, he has strived to create it in his own image.

Broadcaster-columnist-author Yair Lapid is now – as of Sunday – an "official" politician. It may seem baffling to those unfamiliar with the man that, according to polls, some ten percent of Israelis would be willing to cast their vote for his new party, which has not yet even been formed. But those who have followed Lapid over the years know it is impossible to find him a parallel in the spheres of American or British journalism and politics.

In a media career that spanned three decades, 48-year-old Lapid has done everything to epitomize the "new Israeli" and, since there is no clear definition of what that is, he has strived to create it in his own image. For eight years he presented the eponymous "Yair Lapid" talk show on Channel Two prime time, in which the last question he presented to each of his guests was, "What is Israeli in your eyes?" In perhaps one of the greatest giveaways of his career, he interviewed his father, journalist-turned-politician Yossef "Tommy" Lapid, whose answer to this question was an emotional, "You."

While Lapid Junior now seems to be emulating his father by leaving media for politics, there is only a superficial resemblance between the two cases. While Tommy Lapid took pride in his Hungarian origins, writing cookery books redolent of paprika and tour-guides to classical Europe, his son yearns to be the ultimate Sabra. And while the father almost entered politics by accident, agreeing at the last moment to step in and save the nearly-extinct Shinui faction, subsequently leading it to electoral success in two campaigns, his son has been planning his platform for years and, by all reports, intends to launch his very own, resolutely middle-of-the-road party.

Lapid breathed journalism from birth: his maternal grandfather was a founder of Maariv newspaper, his father one of its most prominent writers and his mother a best-selling author and playwright. He didn't waste a minute in his pursuit of the family vocation, serving his army duty as a reporter for the Israel Defense Forces magazine "Bamahane" and, following that, launching his own meteoritic career on the pages of Maariv.

Lapid is a talented writer. Early forays in small poetry magazines showed he had a promising future in that field. But he preferred the mass-market. After fifty years of familial loyalty to Maariv, he crossed the road and flogged his popular weekend column to Yediot Ahronot, which offered both big money and a much wider audience. On television, he plowed a similar furrow, moving from the staid national broadcaster to commercial Channel Two.

Over the years, he established his credentials as a polymath for the masses. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he tried his luck in Hollywood and on the local movie scene - appearing in a couple of films and even entering the boxing ring for a few disastrous bouts - but he steadily gravitated toward more "serious" media. He wrote everything - plays, detective stories and pop songs - always with the knack of producing bestsellers. On the way, he utilized his film-star looks to make millions in advertising and was routinely voted one of Israel's sexiest men.

As part of his trajectory toward middle-aged respectability, the subjects of his weekly columns changed from folksy family-life fodder to weighty perorations on the main issues of the day and Israel's future. Essentially, he was building up a manifesto for a "sane" mainstream Israel.
He took care not to stray too far to either extreme. He remained secular, but also connected to Jewish roots and biblical sources, in favor of compromise with the Palestinians but full of sympathy for the settlers, projecting a vision of a westernized Israel with a Mediterranean aroma. If no man can be all things to all people, Lapid has certainly tried.

His most significant career move - until now - took place four years ago, when he lowered the curtain on his talk show, terminated his advertizing contracts and became a full-time political journalist, anchoring Channel Two's flagship news program, Ulpan Shishi (Friday Studio). He opened his first night with the self-regarding words "I am Yair Lapid and I am wearing a tie."

Though he frequently denied it, his columns and public appearances over the last few years were increasingly those of a politician with a plan on the stump. His prevarications in recent months sounded particularly pathetic as more details emerged of public figures planning to run with him in the next elections and a team of unofficial advisors already devising his elections strategy. Now that he has finally taken the plunge, it is clear he has already mastered the politician's art of deception.