Yair Lapid, Israel’s newest political star, has the disillusioned middle class to thank for his shock electoral success, as the sector has felt increasingly marginalised, economically and ideologically.
His savvy understanding of their grievances allowed him to pull off a stunning upset, snatching seats from a range of rivals to become kingmaker in Israel’s coalition politics, despite the overall victory claimed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On Tuesday night, as Netanyahu was claiming victory after exit polls gave his joint list 31 seats and talking about the Iranian threat, Lapid was pledging “real change” in front of his supporters.
Yesh Atid “is the party of normality. We have gathered all the components of society with the hope of changing things in Israel,” said Rabbi Shai Piron, number two on the party list.
In creating Yesh Atid (“There is a future”), Lapid sought to appeal to Israelis who feel that the positive macroeconomic indicators touted by Netanyahu do not reflect their everyday economic struggles.
These are Israelis who range from atheists to the devoutly religious but who favour a secular government that would no longer allow the ultra-Orthodox to escape the military service that most Israelis must complete.
To keep the party’s appeal broad, the faction avoided contentious issues such as peace with the Palestinians, and fielded an unusual blend of candidates.
Along with Lapid, the son of a fierce secularist, were rabbis, an ultra-Orthodox man, a handicapped woman, a member of the Druze minority, a former head of the Shin Bet intelligence services and an Ethiopian woman.
The party’s strategy appeared to be shaped by the experience of the mass cost of living protests of summer 2011 which saw record numbers of Israelis from all walks of life come together in unusual solidarity.
“The feeling of disgust with the political game rules did not die, it only increased further” after the demonstrations, columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Aharonot daily.
“It went beyond Facebook posts and influenced not only the younger generation in the big cities but other age groups and other sectors of society,” he said.
For many commentators, Lapid’s victory was also a powerful rebuke to those who consider Israeli society to be increasingly religious and hardline and who regard secular liberals as an endangered species.
“They will no longer be able to say that the centre-left is a Tel Aviv sushi-eating bubble which has no ideology,” analyst Yael Paz-Melamed wrote in Maariv newspaper.
“No fewer than half of Israel’s citizens believe in the direction and values of the centre-left.”
Others were less complimentary, suggesting that Lapid, a good-looking former news anchor, was simply the beneficiary of the electorate’s desire for something new.
“Yair Lapid’s victory is the victory of modern politics — the politics of the Internet and reality shows,” Yossi Verter wrote in the Haaretz daily.
“His experience begins and ends with presenting television shows and writing scripts and newspaper columns.”
Among the party’s supporters, there was little regard for such pessimism after the exit polls were broadcast on Tuesday night, with youths dancing wildly as more seasoned activists looked on with amusement.
Dotted throughout the crowd were religious men wearing skullcaps who mingled freely with gay rights activists waving a giant rainbow flag.
“We are not a sectoral party, not religious, not secular, but a Jewish party whose primary mission is to advance a more equal sharing of civic duties,” Piron said.