Israel's Other Magician: Yair Lapid

Lapid’s message is clear and terrifying: A politician who wants a reasonable chance at becoming prime minister must be an empty screen onto which anyone can project their own wishes.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
Ofer Vaknin

This was supposed to be his element. Way back, four years ago, Yair Lapid would have wallowed in the Shabbat train crisis like an elephant in a mud bath, happily immersing himself in it and smearing himself with heaps of mud. This time he could not be found anywhere. Knowledgeable sources claimed that he was last seen standing on an improvised podium in Stockholm, whispering hoarsely to a tiny, baffled audience that he and they love Israel.

Finally he responded, launching a Facebook initiative to provide transportation for stranded train commuters. Thus he managed to hold the stick from both ends – on the one hand making a meaningless move ostensibly designed to benefit the public, on the other maintaining peaceful relations with ultra-Orthodox politicians. After donning a prayer shawl and having his wife participate in the mitzvah of separating the challah, it seems he is telling himself and his associates that after declaring his faith in God, giving sycophantic interviews to Haredi newspapers and embracing the stones of the Western Wall, it would be foolhardy to reopen old wounds.

Then last night Lapid appeared on Channel 10 news, ready to finally talk about the goal that defined his political path, that was his party’s raison d’etre – slashing ultra-Orthodox influence on politics, dragging them into the army and work force, by their beards if necessary. However, it quickly became apparent that Lapid did not come to the studio because he realized he’d crossed new frontiers of cynicism, or to protect the political environment, but precisely for the opposite reason. Lapid wanted to advertise and thus consolidate his new position, in all its contradiction, like a magician trying out his sleight of hand act before an audience, to see if anyone catches on to his ruse.

Interviewer Tamar Ish-Shalom, still believing in her ability to pin him down, tried to extricate from him a clear statement. Raviv Drucker tried to pressure him to repeat what he’d said, when, during a stream of verbiage, he remarked that the status quo should be maintained. Drucker wasn’t surprised when Lapid evaded this attempt. This routine, in which all the participants, most of all Lapid himself, are aware that they are at the bottom of the reviled, filthy political heap, was a moment for reflection.

Never mind earlier Lapid’s announcements of “a new style of politics.” The older style of politics always maintained some basic connection, even if a loose one, between the leader and credo of a political party and its actions in the Knesset. Lapid is a signatory to the total cancellation of these necessary connections. This isn’t just an another step down in the ploys and stunts we’ve gotten used to, it’s a complete break in relations between politicians and their public. Lapid’s message is clear and terrifying: A politician who wants a reasonable chance at becoming prime minister cannot make do with pandering to his voters or swaying with the wind. He must be an empty screen onto which anyone can project their own wishes.

A few weeks ago someone who is very close to Lapid promised me, hand on heart, that he would be a great prime minister, loyal to all his principles, but that until he reaches that office, he has to do what everyone else does: buckle under and slide his way forward.

However, Lapid’s politics makes the public altogether superfluous, leaving only himself as irreplaceable. Amazing as it is, the words of this Lapid ally reflected Lapid’s belief that his political positions are not important – what’s important is he himself. We should elect him simply because he’s Yair Lapid. If that happens, we’ll find out what autocracy really is.