Lapid, the Ever-changing Billboard

As his recent interview in The New York Times shows, Finance Minister Yair Lapid knows how to sell himself as everything to everyone, but his brand is wearing thin.

When Israeli governments despaired at the two-faced statements of former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, who would say one thing to an Arab audience and another in English to Israeli and American audiences, they began demanding he stop speaking out of both sides of his mouth. We will believe you when you say in English what you say in Arabic, they said.

Arafat has a new doppelganger. He doesn’t stutter, is clean-shaven and wears a suit and tie. But he uses the same old trick. He speaks the truth in English to The New York Times and then whines in Hebrew that he was misunderstood. He declares to The New York Times that he won’t make concessions regarding the settlements, that there is no reason to stop building in the territories, that he doesn’t see a partner for peace in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and that he supports, at most, a Palestinian state with temporary borders for three, four or five years (read: forever). But in Hebrew, he pushes the peace-process drug openly: “Two states, etc.,” I won’t be part of a government that doesn’t take part in the peace process” and other nuggets that once inspired his admirers to gaze at him bleary eyed and beg for another dose.

Poor people in the streets of New York used to make a living by serving as walking billboards, wearing two-sided cardboard signs around their necks with, for instance, an advertisement for toothpaste on the front and for a soft drink on the back. Advertising technology has advanced since then, and walking billboards have been replaced with electronic signs that change ads every few seconds.

Lapid is leading his own street advertising revolution. Contradictory slogans appear simultaneously, with customers free to choose the ones they like. Is state funding for yeshivas being cut or isn’t it? You choose. Is the middle class being hurt? Yes and no. What about a reduction in defense spending? It’s certainly happening. Wait, what do you mean a reduction? It will be repaid in two years with a respectable supplement added on.

And now, here comes the peace process, because Lapid isn't just the finance minister, he’s also a statesman. He has even slid onto Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world: Lapid with American first couple Barack and Michelle Obama, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and pop superstar Beyonce, who at least can sing. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis would be a more fitting companion for Lapid on the list. He must be Lapid’s idol; since the finance minister’s deepest desire is to be Abraham Lincoln, or at least Israel’s prime minister – not as an actor exactly, but to check off the role in the movie of his life.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and author of the fascinating book "Thinking Fast and Slow," invented the phrase, "What you see is all there is." He explains that we build a narrative or assessment of a person or company from the little information we have in our hands, and the information we don't have has no effect on our thinking. Leaders, Kahneman says, are the greatest manufacturers of stories that rely on sparse information, whether it’s accurate or not.

Fortunately, the public has enough information to size up Lapid. Granted, the illusion we had about him until recently was built on sparse information and fed by his initial mystery. But the pre-election spell has popped like a bubble. Lapid's splendor is already behind him. He reached his peak, befittingly, on pronouncing his political doctrine in The New York Times.

It’s pointless even criticizing his words, since they don’t really outline a theory, ideology or policy, but a collection of musings appropriate for all occasions. All the same, he will quickly deny even these, in Hebrew of course. This is because Lapid isn’t an ideologue. He isn’t on the political right or left or in the center or on the margins. If political engineering were a profession, Lapid could teach it.

“Jerusalem is not a place, Jerusalem is an idea,” Lapid told The New York Times. He is certainly ready to join the ancient city, as he has already become an idea himself.

Rami Shlush