Most Popular Israeli Journalist Enters Political Arena

Ron Cantor —  January 17, 2012 — Leave a comment
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Journalist Yair Lapid left his powerful post with Channel 2 News in order to run for the Knesset (Parliament). Lapid is one of the most accomplished entertainer/journalists in the country.

  • He hosted a weekly talk show for years that received high ratings.
  • He has written numerous songs that others have made famous.
  • He has written screenplays for television as well as several best-selling novels.
  • His weekly newspaper column is thought to be the most read column in the country.
  • His most recent post, as host on Israel’s most-watched news program Ulpan Shishi, was always seen as a stepping-stone before moving into politics.

However what makes this very interesting for me is I actually know the man. No, we are not friends, but through a mutual friend, I have had the pleasure of meeting him about a dozen times.

I have to admit I completely misjudged Yair Lapid when I first met him. He is a strikingly handsome man as well as a black belt in karate, and I just assumed he was a typical Hollywood-type (or in Israel, a Ramat Aviv Gimel type)—a self-absorbed, womanizer. You have to understand that when I met him, I spoke almost no Hebrew—so his looks and his fame were really all I knew about him.

However, over the years I have come to see that this man has won a place in the hearts of Israelis. “Lapid is popular with the Israeli public for his charm and sympathetic interviews with politicians, celebrities and others in the news. He is seen as an honest man of the people,” wrote Harriet Sherwood for the UK’s Gaurdian. Through his talk show he launched the careers of many Israeli comedians much in the way Johnny Carson did in the US.

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However several years ago he abruptly left his talk show and launched what would become Israel’s most-watched news program. Every Friday night at 8pm, after a hearty Shabbat dinner, Israelis watch as Lapid and his commentators dissect the weekly news and his correspondents report in-depth segments from around the country. Their most recent report on the abusive behavior of some ultra-orthodox Jews in Bet Shemesh (city between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) set off a firestorm of outrage throughout the country.

Leaving his talk show for a news program was considered a risk at the time, as the show was wildly popular. The decision paid off and fulfilled its intended purpose—to present Lapid as a serious man—someone who could lead the country.

There is no doubt that Yair Lapid is a serious man. What IS in doubt is his politics. There is no question that he is left of center, but no one really knows how far left of center. His father, also a journalist who left to enter politics, stormed onto the scene a decade ago with a new political party called Sh’nu-i (meaning Change). You have to understand that unlike in the US where there are only two serious parties, in our system we have dozens of parties. We also have fad parties. These are parties that are typically centered on one issue and that one issue can get the fad party a few seats in the Knesset—at least for the short term. These parties typically have a shelf-life of two election cycles.

Tommy Lapid’s Sh’nu-i was a fad party whose platform was simply anti-religious. He was not against religion, but the control that a relatively small group of religious people had on the country. The rabbis are given authority on such important issues as immigration, marriage and divorce. Furthermore, he wanted religious men to work (many live on welfare so they can pray and study all day) and serve in the army. Most Israelis agree with this, and boom—he won several seats and became the Justice Minister under Ariel Sharon.

Now the big question is will Yair Lapid’s new party just be another fad party, or will he build something that will last. Certainly that is his desire. Initial polls suggest that if elections were held today, only Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party would gain more seats. However, if we have learned anything from watching the US Republican primaries, it is that being popular today doesn’t mean you won’t be disgraced (Herman Cain) or lose badly (Newt, Rick Perry, Michele Bachman) tomorrow.

For sure, the media will seek to pick apart his life and it is unlikely that he will continue to score such high marks. And his own channel wasted no time. One of their comedy shows put together a mock song, saying that Israel needs a king—and of course the king is Yair Lapid.

However, because he is not a career politician—like Netanyahu or Shimon Peres—he will be perceived differently. Unlike so many of our leaders who have used politics to get rich (former Prime Minister and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert is presently under indictment for taking bribes), Lapid is leaving an extremely lucrative position, taking a massive pay cut to enter one of the most thankless, vicious professions in the world—politics. By his own admission, many of his closest friends think this is crazy.

In many ways he is trading in his gun for a target that will be attached to his back. No longer will he be exposing corruption from his news room. Instead, others will be sifting through his life looking for anything they can use against him. Cynical Israeli journalists, many of whom have been jealous of Lapid’s success for years, have wasted no time in aiming for this new bull’s-eye.

Yossi Verter, in a less than favorable column for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, mocked Lapid by saying that he has been on a long campaign to present himself as “…the ultimate Israeli. The one who understands us, serves in the army and pays taxes. The one who talks our language and expresses our desires, bleeds when pricked, laughs when tickled and dies when poisoned.”

However fans of Lapid’s talk show and more recent news hour would disagree. They see him as genuine … they believe he is an empathic and caring man.

Lapid means torch in English, as Verter noted in His column. While Lapid will seek to see his ideas shine ever brighter in the Israeli public square, others—pundits and politicians alike—will do their best to make sure his flame is extinguished quickly. Time will tell. Columnist Ophir Bar-Zohar in Haaretz aptly noted, “Israelis love nothing more than to anoint princes only to bring them back down to earth.”

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