Delphine Matthieussent, AFP
Last updated: 16 March, 2013

Israel’s Lapid: TV star turned kingmaker

The surprise kingmaker in Israel’s new governing coalition Yair Lapid is a former television star and political novice who will need all of his charisma as he takes the helm at the finance ministry.

Formed just nine months before polling day, Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid was the upset of January’s general election, emerging as the second-largest party in parliament and the key partner in nearly 40 days of tortuous coalition negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Unknown abroad, Lapid’s chiselled good looks are familiar to Israelis who followed him on screen for 15 years as a prime-time news anchor and chat show host.

A regular on Israel’s “sexiest men” lists, his detractors say he is nothing but a glamour boy and the latest in a line of media personalities who have parlayed celebrity into political success.

Despite a privileged start in life, including a famous father with his own storied political career, Lapid’s creation of Yesh Atid has seen him take on the mantle of defender of Israel’s middle class.

The party made the economy the centrepiece of its platform, wooing secular voters without repelling the religious, and this resonated with an electorate that rates domestic issues its top priority.

The party won 19 of the 120 seats in parliament, second only to Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud which ran on a joint list with the hardline Yisrael Beitenu that took 31 seats.

Lapid is the son of the fiercely secular former justice minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, another journalist who left the media to enter politics at the head of Shinui, a party which won 15 seats in 2003 but later faded into obscurity.

The 49-year-old, a former commentator for the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper and presenter on Channel 2 TV, announced he would be leaving journalism to enter politics in January 2012.

Three months later, he registered his party, whose name means, “There is a future,” with a list aimed at attracting a broad spectrum of Israel’s fractious electorate.

He has emphasised secularism — though less aggressively than his father — and the need for all Israelis to be able to earn a living wage, tapping into economic discontent that saw hundreds of thousands join protests in summer 2011.

A central part of his election campaign was for a better “sharing of the burden” — a euphemism for compelling ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military or perform national service, thereby becoming better integrated into society.

“We are not a centre-left party, we are a centre-centre party,” he told the Jerusalem Post after the election.

“We are the party of the Israeli middle class, the old-fashioned taxpayers who served in the army and afterwards worked hard all their life paying a high tax and see… the cost of living is going up and up, and there’s no equality of the burden with the other parts of Israeli society.”

Although he comes from a powerful and educated family, Lapid never received a high school diploma.

He has been married twice, with a son from the first marriage, and two children, including an autistic daughter, with his second wife, Lihi.