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Yair Lapid's unlikely rise from TV star to Israeli prime minister

When Yair Lapid founded his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, some dismissed him as the latest in a series of media stars seeking to parlay his celebrity into political success
— Jerusalem (AFP)

Some in Israel dismissed Yair Lapid as just another media star when the former news anchor, ad pitchman and soap actor launched his bid for political power a decade ago.

But the 58-year-old, who is set to become the Jewish state's next prime minister at midnight, has a history of surpassing expectation during a political career which, even by Israeli standards, has been turbulent.

Almost a decade ago, with his newly formed centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, he was not immediately taken seriously as a heavyweight or challenger in the lead-up to an election in January 2013.

But Lapid's hometown of Tel Aviv had been rattled by protests against the surging cost of living. He and his party focused their campaign on Israel's struggling middle class, asking why so few were prospering from economic growth.

It worked.

Yesh Atid, led by the ex-news journalist who regularly featured on lists of Israel's most desirable men, shocked pundits by finishing second to the right-wing incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lapid was motivated by public service, not personal brand enhancement, said Dov Lipman, who was elected to parliament on Yesh Atid's 2013 slate.

"He didn't need any of this. His finances were set and he had fame," Lipman, who has since left politics and the party, told AFP.

"He got involved in this because he really felt that things need to change in Israel."

- Challenges -

Lapid's father, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, had also left the media to join politics. Lapid's mother is a writer.

Following the 2013 polls, Lapid joined a Netanyahu-led coalition, had a rocky term as finance minister, joined the opposition in 2015 and became a key player seeking to oust Netanyahu.

That protracted effort ultimately succeeded in June 2021, when Lapid crafted an unlikely coalition of hawks, centrists, left-wingers and Arab Islamists, which ended Netanyahu's 13-year tenure.

He clinched the deal by offering the prime minister's job to Naftali Bennett, whose nationalist Yamina party had fared far worse in the polls than Yesh Atid.

Lapid became foreign minister.

When Bennett announced last week that this coalition was no longer tenable, triggering Israel's fifth election in less than four years, he said he would honour his power-sharing deal with Lapid, who will serve as prime minister and foreign minister of a caretaker government.

As they did when he launched his political career, rising prices have again emerged as a challenge before he assumes the premiership.

"We need to tackle the cost of living," he said, days before he was to become Israel's 14th prime minister.

In December, an authoritative global ranking named Tel Aviv as the world's most expensive city.

Lapid then listed the geopolitical challenges that may dominate his time, including Iran and the Lebanese Shiite militant movement Hezbollah.

- 'Inspirational' -

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lapid's positions have been described as broadly centrist, with some right-leaning tendencies.

Unlike Bennett, he favours direct talks with the Palestinians on a two-state solution, but has voiced doubt about the Palestinian desire to make peace and, at times, defended settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

The parliamentary election set for November 1 will be the seventh time for Lapid and Netanyahu to face off at the ballot box.

Following a March 2020 election, Lapid's former political partner, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, struck a coalition deal with Netanyahu in an attempt to end Israel's unprecedented, and still ongoing, era of political deadlock.

In perhaps another demonstration in recent years of his political acumen, Lapid cut ties with Gantz, warning that Netanyahu would break up the coalition before honouring a power-sharing deal.

Speaking to AFP in 2020, Lapid said: "I told (Gantz), 'I've worked with Netanyahu. Why don't you listen to the voice of experience... He is not going to change'."

For Lipman, Lapid's commitment to family, specifically the care for his autistic daughter, speaks to the new prime minister's character.

Lipman recalled that, when Lapid was finance minister, he regularly set time aside in his weekly schedule for meeting his daughter, whose condition prevents her from communicating with him.

"I believe that he is very inspirational as a leader, which shows a level of care and compassion that gets to the core of who he is," Lipman said, describing Lapid as someone uninterested in the trappings of power.

As finance minister, Lapid refused the car and driver offered by the state, Lipman recalled.