Open Zion

01.23.13

How Yair Lapid Captured The Israeli Zeitgeist

In a surprise that nobody saw coming, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party appears to have wildly outperformed expectations and garnered as many as 19 seats in the next Knesset. Pre-election polling had Yesh Atid picking up 11 seats, and while momentum seemed to be moving its way over the last few days of the campaign, it has inexplicably done well enough to be the second largest party in the Knesset. In fact, Yesh Atid did so well that it might end up only a couple of seats below Likud if the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list breaks apart at the 30 day post-campaign deadline as their agreement allows. So where did Yair Lapid and his party come from and why did voters flock to them toward the end?

Lapid designed his campaign and his party around one idea, which was that core principles and ideology would always take a back seat to what is popular. In a way, this is entirely unsurprising given that Lapid’s premise for leaving his journalism career behind was that he was an extremely popular public figure who could win votes no matter what position he took. Lapid is well known, good looking, and trusted by the Israeli public in a way that prominent American newsmen used to be, and he took this built-in advantage and ran with it. Lapid and Yesh Atid took up the mantle of popular causes and worked tirelessly to make them their own.

For instance, the central theme of Yesh Atid’s campaign was reforming the draft to equalize the burden of service, which is an immensely popular policy. When Kadima joined the government last spring, it tried to assume ownership of the draft issue, ultimately leaving the coalition because Bibi Netanyahu was unwilling to go as far as Kadima wanted in opening the draft to haredim. Yisrael Beiteinu and Avigdor Lieberman also made the draft a huge priority, and Netanyahu ultimately called for early elections because the tension between Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas—both coalition partners—over equalizing the burden of service was threatening to split the government apart. Yet, somehow Lapid was able to push Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu to the sidelines and make this issue his own, to the point that Israelis now think of Yesh Atid as the party most committed to reforming the draft.

Lapid ended up winning so many seats above and beyond what was expected because he was able to successfully look at Israeli society and turn his party into a facsimile of its desires without being controversial. He had an extensive grassroots operation, was highly organized, and knew exactly which positions were most popular to espouse. Reform the draft? Check. More investment in education? Check. Pick non-controversial fights that can easily be won? Check. Acknowledge that a two-state solution is necessary while espousing the belief that there is no Palestinian partner for peace? Check.

The real brilliance of this strategy was not just that Lapid adopted popular issue after popular issue, but that he did so while making sure to leave the door open just a crack so as not to alienate those who disagreed with him. Despite the fact that reforming the draft and breaking the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on state institutions was the central plank of his campaign, he made sure to avoid inheriting his father Tommy Lapid’s reputation of being generally anti-religious by picking a rabbi, Shai Piron, as the number two person on the Yesh Atid electoral list. He proclaimed the need to revive the peace process, but did so in a speech delivered from Ariel—one of Israel’s largest settlements—while letting everyone know that maintaining an undivided Jerusalem was a priority in his eyes. This new embrace of settlements came from the same person who in 2010 wrote an op-ed attacking settlers for ignoring and burdening average Israeli citizens, but who then changed his tune when it became electorally expedient to do so.

Lapid was able to be whatever anyone wanted him to be, and so when the unusually large number of undecided voters was looking for a place to go, Yesh Atid was the natural choice as the party representing the typical Israeli. After all, if you are undecided by the time Election Day rolls around, you are likely going to vote for the person or party that appears to be the pragmatic moderate rather than the person or party that is ideologically dogmatic.

The typical Israeli wants a deal with the Palestinians that lets Israel keep the settlement blocs, wants to do something to address the inequality rampant in Israeli society both in terms of income and disparity in service to the state, does not want to tackle Iran alone, and wants to reform government and society in some vague way that will make things more level and transparent. Lapid jumped on all of these issues simultaneously without ever laying out a real path toward achieving any of them, and in this way he captured the current Israeli zeitgeist perfectly, since there is a sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction and there is dissatisfaction with the government, but nobody quite knows how to turn things around.

Lapid’s appeal is that nearly anyone could vote for him and justify it on some ground. Whether you think Palestinians will never agree to a deal or you think that the peace process must be revived, whether you think the ultra-Orthodox have too much power or you think that religion must be respected, whether you think the middle class is being shafted or you think that capitalism is the path toward greater prosperity, whether you style yourself as a moderate or as right-wing, Lapid can be your man. When undecided or ambivalent Israelis entered the voting booth to cast their ballots, Lapid and Yesh Atid just seemed to make sense, which is all Lapid ever wanted in the first place.