A new coalition is challenging Israel’s longest-serving leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his far-right former ally Naftali Bennett announced he would join forces with former TV anchor-turned-politician Yair Lapid.
Lapid’s efforts to replace Netanyahu were already in play before negotiations for a new government were derailed by the most recent conflict on May 10.
Over 11 days, Israel intensively bombed the Gaza Strip while Hamas, the Palestinian group that rules the besieged enclave, shot rockets towards Israel.
Following an Egypt-brokered ceasefire on May 20, lawmakers kicked talks into high gear ahead of a Wednesday deadline where they have to present their coalition to parliament for a formal vote of confidence allowing it to take office.
Lapid now has the task of cementing bilateral deals with a wide range of different parties – from Israeli ultra-nationalists to members of the United Arab List party – to create what Israeli media has dubbed a bloc for “change”.
But who is Yair Lapid?
A centrist opposition leader, Lapid was once known largely for his successful career as a journalist and popular television host. He is the Tel Aviv-born son of the fiercely secular former justice minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who also left journalism to enter politics.
His mother, Shulamit Lapid, is a well-known novelist, playwright and poet.
An amateur boxer and martial artist who has also published a dozen books, Lapid was a newspaper columnist before becoming a presenter on Channel 2 TV, a role that boosted his stardom, and he once featured on lists of Israel’s most desirable men.
In 2012, he founded the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party with some dismissing him as the latest in a series of media stars seeking to parlay their celebrity into political success. The party, however, was a big winner in the elections the following year, coming in second by winning 19 seats in the 120-seat Israeli parliament.
From that moment, Yesh Atid established itself as a credible force in politics and became a key player of Netanyahu’s coalition government from 2013-2014, when Lapid served as finance minister.
In that role, he focused on re-organising a system that provided welfare payouts to the ultra-Orthodox community, which he accused of squeezing money from the state rather than seeking paid employment. Most of his changes were reversed by the following administrations.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lapid reportedly supports a two-state solution but opposes any division of Jerusalem which is seen by Palestinians as the capital of their future state.
The party joined the opposition in 2015 after refusing to forge an alliance with Netanyahu and suffering a significant setback in that year’s elections.
In 2019, Yesh Atid joined Israel Resilience and Telem to form the centrist Blue and White coalition formed under the leadership of former military chief Benny Gantz. Blue and White then battled Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud in three elections in less than a year.
Lapid parted ways with the alliance after Gantz joined forces with Netanyahu to form a fragile and short-lived alliance in March 2020. Lapid accused Gantz of breaching a fundamental promise Blue and White had made to its supporters, namely that it would fight to remove Netanyahu.
In an interview with the AFP news agency in September, Lapid said Gantz had naively believed that Netanyahu would work collaboratively within the coalition.
“I told (Gantz), ‘I’ve worked with Netanyahu. Why don’t you listen to the voice of experience… He is 71 years old. He is not going to change’,” Lapid said. After exiting Blue and White, Lapid took his seat in parliament as the head of Yesh Atid and leader of the opposition.
He described the short-lived Netanyahu-Gantz unity government as “a ridiculous coalition” in which cabinet ministers who disliked each other did not bother to communicate. He also predicted the coalition would collapse in December, which it did, amid bitter acrimony between Netanyahu and Gantz.