Yair Lapid is the real successor to Ariel Sharon in Israeli politics. On the face of it, it’s hard to imagine two people more different in their behavior and life stories. One was a great military commander, the other barely served in the army. One was called “the white-haired one” and already in middle age walked with difficulty, the other broadcasts eternal youth. The sheep rancher versus the Tel Aviv teen. The bashful man who dared to speak in public only after carefully memorizing the text, compared to the stand-up star, king of the ratings. The man of action versus the model, and so on.
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But in politics the differences between Sharon and Lapid become blurred. Although they grew up in different eras, both are symbols of that establishmentarian Israeliness, in love with itself and now barricading itself against the minorities closing in all around. It is no coincidence that both appealed to the same electorate: Lapid’s Yesh Atid opened its arms to the voters of Kadima, the party Sharon founded in the twilight of his rule, before he sank into a coma. It’s no wonder that the media outlets that define the Israeli mainstream, the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth and Channel 2 television, positioned Sharon and Lapid at the top of their lineup.
More than any other politician, Sharon and Lapid represented the image of the sabra, each in his own generation: Arik, an Uzi in his hand, a bandage on his head and a lamb draped over his shoulders; Yair with his black blazer and his American references. In short, people like you, with a simple message, not sophisticated highbrows. Their great rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, has always been considered an outsider, a patronizing and detached intellectual who is much more comfortable with English than Hebrew. Bibi triggers reverence, Sharon and Lapid trigger the emotions. That’s why Sharon and Lapid achieved unprecedented victories at the polls, while in election after election Netanyahu scraped through by a whisker.
Sharon and Lapid’s ideological platform can be summarized in one word: opportunism. For better or worse, both adapted their positions and messages to their political needs, rather than vice versa. Sharon built settlements when he sought to dominate the right, and destroyed them when he turned to the center. Lapid co-opted the 2011 social protests for his campaign, and as finance minister came out as a small-government capitalist. Lapid formed a temporary alliance with Naftali Bennett’s religious right, and abandoned it when circumstances changed – just as Sharon maneuvered among his political partners throughout his years in the Knesset cafeteria and the government compound. Both demonstrated scorn for the Arabs and boasted of their aversion to the ultra-Orthodox parties, particularly Shas.
For Lapid, as for Sharon, form is far more important than content. The purpose of politics was to bring them to power; they’ll know what to do once they get there. Sharon and Lapid came to politics as entrepreneurs who sought to reshape the political map, not as activists who came up through the ranks. The former founded Likud, Shlomtzion and Kadima, the latter Yesh Atid. As party leaders, both demonstrated a lack of confidence and a fear of democratic rule within the organizations, that could nurture challengers to their leadership. Kadima and Yesh Atid were established as absolute monarchies; Lapid even outdid his master, with a party constitution that gave him a long term as chairman and allowed him to choose the party’s Knesset candidates by himself.
Also like Sharon, Lapid came to politics as a golden boy, but crashed quickly due to his impatience and inexperience. Sharon was ejected from Likud empty-handed; when he returned and climbed his way into the Defense Ministry, he lost everything in the first Lebanon war. Lapid skipped, in record speed, from the television studio to the treasury, without passing the back benches and the minor government ministries, and just as quickly fell from the height of popularity to the bottom of the opinion polls.
Now Lapid is where Sharon was, during his years in the political desert: isolated and humiliated, with the same commentators who saw him as a comer now eulogizing him as a has-been. The challenge he faces now as a politician is to learn from Sharon’s stubbornness and determination, which caused him to remain in politics until he reached the top and regained the public’s affection, rather than losing heart and leaving the playing field for the bleachers.