Yair Lapid, Israel’s New Prime Minister, Played the Long Game to Power

JERUSALEM — Nearly a decade ago Yair Lapid, then the new leader of Israel’s political center, was asked by a television interviewer if he envisaged becoming prime minister after the next election.

“I assume so,” he replied, though he had been elected to Parliament for the first time just a week earlier.

It was a rookie mistake. Mr. Lapid, then better known as a popular television host, journalist, actor and songwriter, was widely ridiculed as a cocky and superficial political novice.

By the time he finally stepped into the coveted office at midnight on Thursday, albeit as the prime minister of a caretaker government following the collapse of the ruling coalition, he had grown considerably in experience and public stature.

As the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, now Israel’s second largest after Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, Mr. Lapid, 58, has since served in government as a minister of finance, strategic affairs, foreign affairs and as an alternate prime minister, along with a stint as the leader of the opposition.

“Once in politics he learned the business quite quickly,” Nahum Barnea, a veteran Israeli political columnist for the popular Yediot Ahronot newspaper, said in an interview.

Mr. Lapid is expected to remain in charge until an election scheduled for Nov. 1 and for some weeks or months after it, as the parties typically require lengthy negotiations to put together a new coalition.

While many new parties in Israel have risen and fallen from fashion within one election cycle, Mr. Lapid succeeded in building a party with a strong infrastructure and an army of volunteer foot soldiers.

Another positive surprise, Mr. Barnea said, was how Mr. Lapid learned to “put aside his ego” and concede to others as he played a long game in his bid for power.

When Yesh Atid joined forces with other centrist parties under the banner of the Blue and White alliance in 2019, Mr. Lapid, the No. 2 on the slate, willingly gave up on an agreement he had with the No. 1, Benny Gantz, a former military chief, to rotate the premiership if they won an upcoming election.

Mr. Lapid, who lacks the security credentials that have eased the paths of other Israelis into power, understood that the agreement was harming Blue and White’s chances.

More striking was what happened after the March 2021 election, the fourth inconclusive ballot to be held within two years, as Mr. Netanyahu repeatedly tried to cling to power despite being on trial for corruption.

Mr. Netanyahu again failed to cobble together a majority and as a result, Mr. Lapid, the runner-up, was given the opportunity to form a government. He succeeded in assembling an ideologically diverse coalition of eight parties with a razor-thin majority.

And in what many viewed as a selfless act untypical of Israeli politicians, he allowed Naftali Bennett, a coalition partner who led a small, right-wing party, to take the first turn as prime minister in another rotation pact, because Mr. Bennett was seen as more acceptable to the right-wing flank of the coalition.

That arrangement lasted a year. Under the terms of their coalition agreement, Mr. Lapid was supposed to take over from Mr. Bennett in August 2023. But in a reflection of the unifying and inclusive political climate they strove to create after years of toxic divisiveness, Mr. Bennett announced that he was honoring their pact and would hand over the reins to Mr. Lapid with the dissolution of Parliament.

The powers of a caretaker government are limited, so Mr. Lapid is unlikely to introduce any significant policy changes, but he will have the advantage of campaigning for the next election as the incumbent. He will also have the chance to welcome President Biden in mid-July, when he makes his first trip to the Middle East since he took office.

In a head-to-head election race with Mr. Netanyahu — who is leading in the polls despite his continuing legal troubles — Mr. Lapid can hold his own as a polished, articulate and telegenic communicator.

The son of Yosef Lapid, an often abrasive former government minister and Holocaust survivor, and Shulamit Lapid, a novelist, Mr. Lapid was known during his television days for his amicable interviewing style. With his good looks and suave manner, his celebrity status stemmed in part from his image as a quintessential Israeli.

One of his more successful songs, “Living on Sheinkin,” referring to a trendy street in Tel Aviv, became a hit for an Israeli girl band in the late 1980s.

Mr. Lapid founded Yesh Atid in 2012. The party was the surprise of the election the following year, winning 19 seats in the 120-seat Parliament. Mr. Lapid became finance minister in a Netanyahu-led government.

He rode in on a wave of middle-class frustration with Israel’s ever rising cost of living and housing, which had given rise to widespread social justice protests in 2011. One of his catchphrases was, “Where’s the money?”

In his first years in politics, he championed popular demands for a more equal sharing of the burden, particularly an end to automatic military exemptions for thousands of ultra-Orthodox students who opt for full-time Torah study, as well as a reduction in taxes that were choking the middle class.

Mainly popular in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and secular, suburban Israel, Mr. Lapid and his party have suffered in the past from taking safe, centrist positions that were less engaging than those of more ideological parties.

“At first the political center was very amorphous,” said Orit Galili-Zucker, a former strategic communications adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and a political branding expert. “It wasn’t clear what it was.”

At times, when Mr. Lapid tried to appeal to soft-right voters, he was accused of blowing with the wind and saying what he thought people wanted to hear. He has denounced supporters of boycotts against Israel and its settlements in the occupied West Bank as antisemites and has harshly criticized an Israeli anti-occupation group that collects testimony from former soldiers, called Breaking the Silence.

Now, Ms. Galili-Zucker said, he has established himself as being more on the center-left. He has stated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if that seems unattainable right now.

At the same time, he has become more accommodating toward the ultra-Orthodox parties, which have been linchpins of most governing coalitions in recent decades.

A father of three and a former amateur boxer with a black belt in karate, Mr. Lapid is married to Lihi Lapid, a successful writer. Their daughter, Yael, is on the autism spectrum, and Mr. Lapid became emotional in May when the cabinet discussed additional funding for people with disabilities, telling the ministers, “This is the most important thing you will ever do.”

After his father died in 2008, at 77, Mr. Lapid wrote “Memories After My Death,” the story of his father’s life from his days in the ghetto of Budapest through his period as minister of justice in Ariel Sharon’s government.

Mr. Lapid once related in a television interview that his father told him four days before he died, “Yairi, I am leaving for you a family and a state.”

After Parliament was dissolved on Thursday, and hours before he formally took over as prime minister, Mr. Lapid headed straight to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.

“There,” he wrote on Twitter, “I promised my late father that I will always keep Israel strong and capable of defending itself and protecting its children.”

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