Some stories need to be told from the beginning. Some should be told from the end. The political story of Yair Lapid needs to be related from the middle – more precisely, from the night of January 23, 2013, six years and one week ago. That’s when the scale of Lapid’s electoral achievement became clear, as his party Yesh Atid won no fewer than 19 Knesset seats. Lapid, though, didn’t seem to be surprised. At the beginning of the campaign, he had told his associates that he was aiming for 22 seats.
For some of his friends and advisers, the taste of victory was tempered by concern that the sharp takeoff did not bode well. One adviser, Nili Reichman, relates that when the results became known, MK-elect Ofer Shelah went over to Lapid, smiled at him and accurately expressed what many felt. Congratulations, he said to Lapid, you have been chosen to be the disappointment of the next election.
And so it was: In the general election two years later, Yesh Atid was reduced to 11 seats. The party begins its current campaign, ahead of the April 9 election, in single-digit territory in the polls. Suddenly, the person who consistently snatched votes from moribund Labor and at one stage posited himself as the only alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu, must now deal with a glitch called Benny Gantz. A new candidate, fresher than Lapid, Gantz, in addition to having a pretty face and a mainstream approach against the vitriol of the Netanyahu era, can also flaunt a record that Lapid can only envy. Will Lapid be able to overcome the challenge posed by the former chief of staff?
Everyone who knows Lapid – from those who despise him to his greatest admirers – is convinced that he will never agree to be anyone’s No. 2. From the day he entered politics, Lapid has been certain that he deserves to be prime minister. He built up a superbly organized party, one engineered entirely around the cult of the leader, and he will do whatever he can to avoid hooking up with someone else who will demand the top spot, however attractive. That approach may prove to be his trap.
Or maybe it’s the trap of the center-left in general. In the past, it was argued that Lapid’s supporters were only fair-weather fans and that if a genuine alternative to Netanyahu were to emerge, they would abandon him. But things have changed. According to the statistician and pollster Prof. Camil Fuchs, “Since 2015, we have been identifying voters who stay with Yesh Atid because they think it’s the right choice, and not as a default in the absence of anyone else. They account for seven to eight Knesset seats. We are also identifying them in polls that look at a possible alliance between Gantz and Labor. In that event, part of Yesh Atid disappears, but at least seven seats remain.”
Lapid is here to stay. But what drives the party’s ambitious leader? What underlies the persona of the columnist and television personality who created from scratch the best organized and most disciplined party in Israeli politics?
Dreams with Lahiani
To understand the Lapid of 2019, we need to go back to the period of Yesh Atid’s establishment. The initial feelers were put out by Lapid at the end of the last decade. In 2008, he met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The latter advised him to join his own party, Kadima – he thought Lapid would have little trouble wresting the leadership from Tzipi Livni, after his own departure, and conquering the summit immediately afterward. Lapid also studied the Labor Party and its regulations during this period. There he found that the party’s rank-and-file gave their leader no rest, and that various pressure groups exercised disproportionate influence. The primary, he realized could turn out to be problematic.
That same year, Lapid became the anchor of Channel 2’s popular Friday evening newsmagazine. In retrospect, it is clear that there was a lengthy period when Lapid functioned simultaneously as a journalist in the present and a politician in the future. There was no full disclosure in terms of his viewers. While leading the Channel 2 panel of pundits, Lapid was also busy at the grass-roots level politically. He allied himself with Shlomi Lahiani, the charismatic mayor of Bat Yam at the time, who led a group of mayors and local-council heads who were angling to enter national politics, among them Yael German, Carmi Gillon, Meir Cohen and Danny Atar. They were joined by attorney Kenneth Mann, founder of the Public Defender’s Office. Lapid brought Rabbi Shai Piron to the group.
A trend was soon apparent. The leadership was divided between Lahiani and Lapid, both of them charismatic and talented, each of them from a different background. Lahiani’s arrest on corruption charges in December 2009 put an end to that narrative.
The group met regularly. The aim of their discussions was “to forge a different Israeli dialogue.” The views that were expressed tended clearly to the left. “We talked a great deal about how the occupation was destroying us,” Gillon, a former Shin Bet security service director, says.
That tone was also discernible in a good many of Lapid’s newspaper columns over the years. In a column he published in Maariv back in the summer of 1995, he argued that centrist parties have nothing to say, “because there is no center in Israel. Nor can there be. The central problem of our life contains only two possibilities. There is a quite intolerable arrogance in all this sudden centrist business, because it’s based on the notion that we are all idiots.”
The overtures to Jacob Perry, like Gillon a former Shin Bet director – who would become a cabinet minister on behalf of Yesh Atid – were made long before Lapid left his journalistic career, according to Perry.
When the party began to get off the ground, Lapid distributed regulations among the members. Some of them rubbed their eyes in disbelief when they discovered the immense privileges that accrued to the leader, not least the fact that he could not be replaced for the foreseeable future. Gillon left the group in protest.
In 2012, in his first interview as a politician, Lapid explained that he didn’t want the fledgling party to fall prey to vote wranglers, and explained that in seven years everyone would be invited to try to oust him as the party’s leader. Seven years have passed, but in the meantime Lapid has extended his term until 2027.
In that formative period, Lapid was occupied with putting together a team of stars from outside to enter the Knesset. The true engine of the party, however, then as now, consists of shadow players: TV producer Danny Vesely, who worked with Lapid on his shows, and Hillel Kobrinsky, a brigadier general in the reserves, who was one of the leaders of Ehud Barak’s election campaign in 1999. (Along with Perry and Kobrinsky, a few years ago, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin agreed to meet discreetly with Lapid to discuss security matters, but the group fell apart after a few meetings.)
A key position in the new party was taken by the American pollster Mark Mellman, a politically liberal Orthodox Jew with whom Lapid continues to work closely. Polling has become a major tool in the party’s work.
“We would sit with Mellman and come up with about 20 different messages of interest to the Israeli audience,” relates Yoav Zucker, who was Yesh Atid’s media strategist in the 2013 election. “Afterward, we would ask: What shall we talk about? What is most interesting? We started to float messages and we saw what people clicked on the most. Education gets more clicks? Sababa – great! We come out with a slogan: We’re here to transform education.” And how was the party’s position on the subject formulated? “There wasn’t a position,” Zucker says. “The slogan was ‘We’re here to change’ – and then whichever issue. That’s how we designed the campaign.”
Train of advisers
The party’s phenomenal success in the election landed Lapid the Finance Ministry. The sharp transition from journalist to senior minister did not seem to faze him. On the contrary, he thought he was on the fast track to the Prime Minister’s Bureau.
Lapid had accepted the treasury portfolio against the advice of his close circle; they wanted him to insist on the Foreign Ministry, where he would be able to flourish without risking political damage. Ehud Barak, himself a former foreign minister, with whom Lapid consulted, told him with typical sarcasm that the most difficult mission he would encounter as foreign minister would be “to hold a cocktail glass and speak English at the same time.” But Lapid found himself coping with budgetary and deficit problems, after being pushed into the job by Netanyahu, a wily politician who completely outfoxed the novice. The 20 months in the treasury left him battered, and transformed him from a national darling into a target for repeated attacks. What happened?
Lapid was greeted with applause in the foyer of the Finance Ministry when he arrived for his first day of work. But almost immediately, he discovered that he had inherited a large deficit and that the clock for passage of the new budget was ticking. He had little time to familiarize himself with the material. “He didn’t know what a budget was, what a deficit was, what the GNP meant – nothing, nothing, nothing,” according to someone who met with him at the time. Lapid started to recruit experts from far and wide.
Netanyahu, for his part, asked the economist Manuel Trajtenberg to show the novice minister the ropes. A series of meetings were held in Lapid’s house, and Trajtenberg also joined an external forum established by the finance minister. Lapid was a diligent student, according to a member of the forum. He wrote down everything and he would ask questions when he didn’t understand something. As time passed, though, the experience became less positive for the others. “A sense of frustration grew constantly stronger as the meetings went on,” the forum member recalls. “After about a year, there was a moment when we stood on the sidewalk outside his house, at the end of another meeting, and we all had the feeling that we were really wasting our time.”
Lapid maintains that he rescued the Israeli economy from a deficit of 40 billion shekels (about $10 billion). When he came under fire in the summer of 2013, he branded the critics “nervous schnauzers that got left out in the rain.” Nonetheless, that criticism is apparently the reason that by the time of the 2015 budget he wanted to increase the deficit, despite the blanket opposition of the governor of the Bank of Israel, the budget director in the treasury and the ministry’s director general.
In fact, Lapid embarked on a collision course with the ministry’s senior officials from the outset. He replaced the director general, Doron Cohen, with Yael Andorn, locked horns with the deputy budget director, Reuven Kogan, over housing issues, and removed the budget director, Gal Hershkowitz, in favor of Amir Levy, with whom Lapid clashed as well.
Treasury officials divide Lapid’s brief tenure in the ministry into two: the period of the deficit, when he accepted the experts’ advice and raised taxes; and the period of aggressive populism, whose peak was the short-lived plan to eliminate VAT, which drew flak from every possible forum – including members of Lapid’s close circle, who thought he was needlessly overreaching – and ended with the resignation of the treasury’s chief economist, Michael Sarel, in 2014. In the end, Lapid left the impression that he avoided confrontations with lobbyists. “After the fine words about the working person and the high cost of living, tough battles are needed, and Lapid simply understood that it wasn’t worth his while to get into those fights,” a treasury source sums up.
But there were effective actions as well: the establishment of a team of directors of government companies in order to supplant political appointments with professionals; his tough stance in the face of the defense establishment, which as usual demanded a budget hike and at the height of the crisis in May 2014, even called off the army’s training exercises; and the extensive promotion of women to key posts. “Yair thinks women work better, are more efficient, smarter and see the world differently,” Reichman, the adviser, says. “He really believes in that.”
Mystery of military service
Lapid’s tenure as finance minister, which ended when Netanyahu fired him in December 2014, exacted a price. The person who had promised to work for the middle class found himself announcing stringent economic measures. It was also a period in which he faced questions about whether he actually possessed the qualifications to hold key government positions. Lapid increasingly became a target of derision from both the right and the left.
A key reason for this is his tendency to resort frequently to exaggeration and inaccuracies. Friends from his youth relate that even then, along with his charisma and generosity (“He always put up the money when we played and recorded in the studio” – Lapid used to play the guitar), he had a pronounced inclination to hyperbole. “He would tell stories that never happened, right next to the person who was a relevant part of the story,” one of his friends from adolescence recalls. “No one would said a word, because it was Yair.”
That trait is blatant in connection with his military service. Lapid, as everyone knows, did service at the army’s magazine Bamahane – but he didn’t start out there, nor did he get there via the regular Israel Defense Forces selection process. According to an officer who also worked for the magazine at the time, in the fall of 1982, a few months after the start of the first Lebanon war, a young soldier appeared without any advance notice, and informed the clerk that he had been posted to the magazine. “To my astonishment, he turned out to be the son of the director general of the [Israel] Broadcasting Authority, [Yosef] Tommy Lapid,” the officer recalls. “We asked him how he got here. He said he had been in the Armored Corps and that someone had thrown a smoke grenade near him that had caused him to have an asthma attack. When we asked the personnel directorate where the soldier had come from, they told us: What do you care? He’s not part of your manpower quota.”
In a 1994 article, Lapid related that on the seventh day of the Lebanon war he had helped organize the landing of helicopters at Lake Qaroun in Lebanon, when a smoke grenade rolled on the ground next to him and led to his evacuation to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. He added that a few days earlier he had been in a jeep as the radio operator for two officers who were killed in an ambush, whereas he had survived by chance, “because I got out to eat something.”
He repeated that version of the events, more or less, in his book “Memories After My Death,” an autobiography of the late Tommy Lapid that Yair wrote in his father's name. In the book he relates that he entered Lebanon in the first week of the war with the 500th Armored Brigade, and then provides another account – as "told" by his father: “Two hours later, a soldier from the IDF Missing Soldiers Unit knocked at our door holding Yair’s kit bag and expressing his sorrow at Yair’s death. It turned out that Yair had taken a ride with two officers in a jeep, but had jumped out to have lunch and they had continued on their way. Just a few hundred feet down the road, the officers had hit a land mine and were killed. When Yair’s kit bag was found among the destroyed jeep’s ruins, it was assumed that he’d been killed as well. Had he not been sleeping in the next room it is safe to assume I would have had a heart attack on the spot” (translation by Evan Fallenberg).
The adjutant of the 500th Brigade at the time, Avi Segal, remembers an incident during the first week of the war in which two officers – Menachem Ben Tzur and Tzadok Ben Menachem – were killed in an ambush. In the days preceding the incident Segal was in close contact with the two, because of their joint role in the brigade’s headquarters. There was no soldier named Yair Lapid in their vicinity, he says.
About seven years after he provided the version about the Armored Corps, the helicopter, the jeep and the officers, Lapid himself offered a different account in response to a post criticizing his service as a jobnik, a noncombatant: “I was drafted as a combat recruit in an antiaircraft unit. Toward the end of basic training, at Palmahim, I had an asthma attack and was sent to Tel Hashomer hospital, where my medical profile was lowered and I was told that I would not be able to do combat duty.” Lapid also wrote about being drafted into antiaircraft service in a 1995 column in Maariv.
An incident in the Armored Corps or in the antiaircraft unit? A smoke bomb in Lebanon or an asthma attack at Palmachim? Rambam or Tel Hashomer? And what’s the deal with the story of the soldier from the missing persons unit showing up at his parents’ home and expressing his regret at his supposed death, without a body being found and without the brigade’s adjutant having encountered him? Haaretz suggested to Lapid that he shed light on his military service, but Yesh Atid refrained from commenting on it in detail.
In the end, he landed in Bamahane, the army magazine. Before starting to write for the weekly, he was a kind of assistant to the deputy editor, Hagar Enosh, who knew his father. Some of the unit’s members recall a soldier who made faces during roll call and who would enter the commander’s office and speak to him as though there were no distinction of rank between them. Enosh remembers one incident vividly. “There was an elderly worker named Yonah in the printing press,” she relates. “One evening, Lapid showed up there and said he wasn’t satisfied with the printing. He told Yonah to make changes three times, until Yonah lost his cool and slapped him. I learned about it, because Tommy [Lapid] called to say that he’d told his son that Yonah had been 100 percent right and that Yair needed to learn respect for manual workers.”
Both the flippant attitude toward his army service and the ridicule of his performance in the treasury pale in the face of the organization and order that exist in Yesh Atid. It’s doubtful whether the party would be able to function were it not for the unusual level of self-discipline possessed by its leader. Lapid zealously maintains a strict regimen in regard to fitness and nutrition. The tough line he adopted since entering politics, they say, applies to all areas of life: the decision to sell the BMW jeep, to stop smoking cigars and to abstain from alcohol. According to friends, he passes up dessert in restaurants, too.
“The man has the fire of a stove that never stops burning,” Jacob Perry says. “His mental and physical abilities – to rush from gathering to gathering, to stand, speak and persuade – are of a rare quality. He’s very intelligent. He listens, he understands, he’s a quick study. But he doesn’t always follow through. I’ve told him many times that I thought he was wrong, that he needed to consult with others. Did that lead to change? Not really.”
Yesh Atid is run like a family party, a cohesive body that marks out and brushes off anyone who attacks it as an enemy. The family image isn’t only a metaphor. Lapid’s wife, Lihi, an author and newspaper columnist, crisscrosses the country giving talks and appearing at parlor meetings for women in which she promotes both the party and her books. She’s welcomed as a celeb and a guru; she has a spokesperson of her own in the current campaign.
Lihi’s sister, Ilil Keren, heads up the women’s section of the party. Lapid himself arrives at large gatherings accompanied by his sister, Merav, an esteemed psychoanalyst. His ex-wife, Tamar Friedman, and their son, Yoav, were involved in his first election campaign. (He met Friedman at a party after his army discharge. The two decided that very night to get married. They were divorced not long after the birth of their son.)
The family format also extends to the group of friends that coalesced around Lapid over the years. Those close to him laud his total loyalty to friends and associates. In fact, a large percentage of the people who still make up the party hierarchy know Lapid from his media days.
Devotion to friends is one of the secrets of Lapid’s charm. The author, journalist and lyricist Yehonatan Geffen, an old friend, recalls how Lapid came to his aid at the end of the 1990s in New York, when he was going through a hard time in the wake of a divorce. Lapid arrived from the West Coast and literally burst into his home, Geffen relates. “There was a sign on the door: ‘Please don’t ring,’” he adds. “Yair broke down the door, filled the refrigerator with goodies, slept over for a few nights, called relatives in Israel and saw to getting me out of there.”
Lapid’s personal loyalty to those around him was reflected in an incident that occurred in the outgoing Knesset. It began when MK Oren Hazan (Likud) mocked Yesh Atid’s Karin Elharrar, one of the MKs closest to Lapid, who because of a handicap had been helped to vote by MK Esawi Freige (Meretz). Lapid charged at Hazan furiously, with Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi standing between them and warning him, “Don’t get embroiled, don’t go nuts.” Lapid afterward thanked Hanegbi for saving his political career.
But there are also cases in which Lapid turned his back on friends who got into trouble with the law. That’s how he treated Olmert, and afterward Lahiani.
When Lapid posits someone as a rival, he also goes all the way. “He never forgets it when someone hurts him, and he doesn’t forgive, either,” says an MK in his party. Examples can be seen in his boycott of elements in the media: Haaretz, television investigative journalist Ilana Dayan, television host Lior Schleien’s program “Back of the Nation.” He stopped cooperating with Haaretz after the paper reported that he received a doctoral degree from Bar-Ilan University even though he lacked an undergraduate degree. In Dayan’s case, he hasn’t forgotten the report she broadcast after the 2013 election, in which he was perceived to be haughty about the possibility that he would become prime minister. Dayan’s investigative reports about Jacob Perry and Meir Cohen only heightened his sense of victimization. And in contrast to other politicians, he has refused to appear on Schleien’s program, which is frequently critical of him.
Lapid has kept in touch with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes, and, as revealed by Ayala Hasson on Channel 10, continued to meet with him during his tenure as finance minister, albeit secretly. It was actually Mozes who, despite some opposition at Yedioth, got Lapid to move there from Maariv. The relations between them were and remain a focus of criticism. Lapid went on writing his column in the paper’s weekly magazine for months after he announced that he was entering politics. As finance minister, his initiatives were reported in the paper exclusively, as in the case of the zero-VAT idea. Yedioth Ahronoth, for its part, generally gave Lapid sympathetic coverage.
Overall, Lapid always enjoyed the proximity of people with deep pockets, influence and power. One of the closer people to Lapid is the multimillionaire Danny Tocatly, from one of Israel’s richest families, which was among the founders of the Aryeh insurance company. He and Lapid have known each other from a young age. Tocatly is a cousin of Tamar Friedman, Lapid’s first wife. His sister was a close friend of Lapid’s sister Michal, who was killed in a road accident when Yair was 21.
The list of businesspeople who have surrounded Lapid over the years includes Zvi Limon, the son of Mordechai Limon, who was the commander of the Israel navy; Shimon Weintraub and Ronen Peled, who were among the controlling shareholders in BCRE, a real estate company; Shimon Goldberg, Toktali’s partner in the software company FMR; and also Ron Zuckerman and Michael Sesler. Some of them acted as guarantors for Yesh Atid at the party’s inception. Once Lapid officially entered politics, he was diligent about separating his well-heeled friends from his political activity.
Another tycoon in Lapid’s circle of friends is Arnon Milchan, who features in one of the corruption cases for which Netanyahu is being investigated. Milchan was in touch with Tommy Lapid and invested in a firm that sold content to cable TV companies, headed by Lapid, Sr. In time, Milchan also grew close to his son.
When Lapid was slammed for being close to Milchan, who was trying to promote tax legislation that would benefit him, Lapid related that the two were indeed friendly. He didn’t elaborate about how Milchan had been by his side at several of key junctures in his life, including the launch of his political project. Milchan accompanied Lapid in 2008 when he met with Olmert to discuss his entry into politics.
More than a decade after that meeting with Olmert, Lapid is now waging his third election campaign. He’s starting it in an uncomfortable position. The political center is more divided than ever. On the one hand, the Labor Party, on the other the new party of Benny Gantz, and alongside them a series of small parties, from Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, to the new parties of Orli Levi-Abekasis, and also Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu. If Gantz truly establishes himself as a serious alternative to Netanyahu, Lapid could lose more votes.
In fact, Lapid also entered the 2015 campaign as an underdog. At the low point, the polls predicted only a handful of Knesset seats for his party. But Lapid soldiered on. He went on the hustings, sounded off in all directions and garnered 11 seats for his party.
Lapid’s years in the opposition were characterized by two trends: a shift to the right, including a sharp attack on human rights organizations, and a move away from the slot of defender of secularity, which peaked with a photograph of him wearing a kippa and wrapped in a tallit at the Western Wall. His close circle was upset by the photo, but his adviser at the time, Ayelet Frisch, saw it as a positive development. Former Minister Perry says that the change was calculated.
“Yair absorbed right-wing ideology at home, but very moderate,” Perry notes. “That wasn’t apparent in his first term in the Knesset. In the second, he made a strategic decision to veer to the right. I don’t know if Mellman, the pollster, told him directly to go right, but he did tell him which issues to deal with less. For example, the Palestinian issue. The thing is, moving rightward didn’t produce the results he hoped for, because the right-wingers have better alternatives.”
Lapid is at a crossroads now. While the possible benefit of linking up with one of the attractive prospects in the center is clear to him, at the same time he is sticking to his desire to be a candidate for prime minister. He might offer Gantz a certain arrangement involving joint leadership. When it comes to another former chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, he could promise him second place on the Yesh Atid slate.
Another alternative is Hatnuah. Lapid’s relations with Tzipi Livni aren’t bad, but it one cannot really say that great mutual esteem exists between the two. People close to Lapid maintain that he has described her as boring, while she has said on different occasions that anyone who wants to connect with Yesh Atid needs to stand to one side and show admiration for the leader. In any case, Lapid mustn’t be caught with any left-wingers like her in the frame.
But no less important is the fact that in the 2019 election, as in 2015, Lapid will go all out to get the vote of the young “Russians,” those who no longer support Avigdor Lieberman but whose secular legs are planted in the right. His chief competitor will be Hayamin Hehadash, the New Right party. As for Lieberman, Lapid enjoys warm relations with him, despite his assertive anti-corruption line. Two years ago, before the head of Yisrael Beiteinu entered the government and was appointed defense minister, the two organized a joint, defiant event aimed against Netanyahu on the issue of “the damage done to Israel’s foreign policy.” Lapid is on friendly terms with New Right co-leader Naftali Bennett, but the collapse of the “alliance of brothers” between them reduces the possibility of future cooperation.
Lapid is also at a crossroads in terms of ideology. His current attempt to ride the wave of the social struggle, like in the good days of 2013, generated mainly ridicule for his photograph in a yellow vest against a background of a luxurious neighborhood of mansions. He looks less relevant, promoting generic messages that are far from the Israeli nerve center, such as the peculiar campaign for the annexation of the Golan Heights. Still, he’s used to coming into an election as an underdog. And, more than right or left, Lapid is one of the best campaigners in Israeli politics. So good, that he’s convinced he deserves to be prime minister.
‘Real problems of real people’
Yesh Atid provided these comments about this article: “Yesh Atid and the party’s chairman are currently working diligently to win the election, in order to change the order of priorities in Israel. The public deserves a prime minister and a ruling party that get up for work every morning with the aim of dealing with the real problems of real people. This is an election about the country’s character and about the government’s role as a unifying element which is so lacking in the Israeli society.
“In regard to the allegations made in the article: Lapid never hid the fact that he was considering entering politics, and he left Ulpan Shishi [Channel 2’s Friday-evening newsmagazine] immediately upon deciding to establish the party. He never met with senior Labor Party figures and did not consider joining that party. As for the allegation of formulating messages according to public opinion, Lapid’s positions were made known year after year in his columns and books, and were known to the Israeli public when he went into the election. Concerning Arnon Milchan, we wish to make it clear that he was not involved in the establishment of Yesh Atid. The party was established only in 2012.
“Concerning the media: Haaretz reporters are present at all the party’s press conferences. Ilana Dayan’s ‘Fact’ program receives a response to questions as part of ongoing work. Lior Schleien’s program is a comedy program and in our opinion is not appropriate for Lapid’s participation.
“Concerning military service: Lapid served in Bamahane after his medical profile was lowered to 45 because of asthma. He wrote and spoke about this many times and never tried to claim otherwise.”