To Bring Change to Israel, Lapid Will Have to Get His Hands Dirty

Yair Lapid's world mirrors his TV studio: no conflicts and fuzzy hopes for a wonderful future.

Yair Lapid's political aim is to force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call for an early election. Not too early, before the new guy has time to get organized - but also not too late, in case his popularity plummets. Lapid hesitated for a long time before announcing his departure from his Friday night TV newsmagazine in favor of political life, and also the decision he made this week was forced upon him by members of the coalition who pulled the "cooling-off period for journalists" law out of the closet . Lapid was dragged into the arena by his opponents; the timing was not his.

Now the agonizing, the hesitation and the foot-dragging are over: Lapid has to seize the initiative and lead the call for elections, which will be fought over the demand for a change in the national order of priorities. That's his ticket. And that is what was seen on the other side of the screen: Lapid and his former Channel 2 colleague, Shelly Yachimovich, read the ratings data carefully and realized that there is a disconnect between the political discourse and the public's state of mind. They perceived that the viewers at home are not interested in the territories, the settlements or the hopeless "political process." What interests them is their economic security and their children's education. With that insight, they moved from the TV studio at Neve Ilan into politics.

Yair Lapid - Glickman
Nimrod Glickman

The protest movement last summer provided a great opportunity for each of them, and they leveraged it successfully. Yachimovich was elected head of the Labor Party, and Lapid is leaping into the arena as the national savior, riding high in the polls even without a party or supporters - just let him throw his hat in the ring.

Lapid is now finishing off the demonstrations on Rothschild Boulevard and in the city squares, where organizers cursed the tycoons and the cartels, and demanded higher taxes and lower prices, but were afraid to touch the spending side or to attack the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox - the Netanyahu government's supporters and favorites. Now Lapid comes along and promises to redistribute the pieces of the spending pie and to transfer the money from Itamar and Yitzhar, from Ramat Beit Shemesh and Bnei Brak, to Rishon Letzion, Ra'anana and Modi'in.

Like his comrade Yachimovich, Lapid too is offering us what the Americans call "motherhood and apple pie" - only good things. Their world resembles prime-time on Channel 2: no Arabs, no national conflict, in fact no foreign policy at all. What's the good of irritating things like those, which just drive away viewers? They want to return to the world of yesteryear: she, to the socialist-welfare state of Mapai, Labor's forerunner; and he, to singing the national anthem at the Memorial Day ceremony - without the religious nationalism and Haredi parasitism that have been ascendant here since the era of Menachem Begin and up through Netanyahu. Give the people a new regime and good education, Lapid is suggesting, and life will be as wonderful as it was in the days of David Ben-Gurion.

With his user-friendly platform, Lapid is not aiming to become prime minister, but wants to hold the balance of power that will enable him to decide who the next one will be. The problem is that, according to demography and the polls, Lapid and Yachimovich are splitting between them the crumbling corpse of Kadima, and the center-left camp is being shattered into three medium-sized parties. All Netanyahu will have to do after the election is maneuver among them and choose his partners, at the lowest price.

If Lapid truly wants to foment change, he will have to reprise what Ariel Sharon did when he created Likud in 1973: exploit his public prestige to force Labor, Kadima and those disappointed in Netanyahu to run as one big bloc, against Likud.

Lapid is not the first to run for election with the cry of "Let people in this country live!" He was preceded by the General Zionists, who sought to pose an alternative to Mapai, rode the horse of public disappointment in the austerity policy and, like Lapid, assailed the bureaucracy. They finished second in the elections to the Second Knesset, in 1951. But David Ben-Gurion had a better grasp of politics than they did. He co-opted them to the coalition in return for minor portfolios, adopted their economic policies and neutralized them as potential adversaries.

The same fate befell the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash) in 1977. It will befall Lapid, too, if he makes do with hopeless calls for the drafting of a constitution and for forcing a "core curriculum" on the Haredim. If he wants to bring about true change, and persuade the public to switch from the foreign-policy channel to Channel 2, he will have to engage Netanyahu in a far more frontal and far dirtier battle.