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Middle East

Yair Lapid, the big winner in Israel's elections

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was punished in recent elections, while newcomer Yair Lapid made a big splash. Lapid, a former TV presenter, took on the ultra-Orthodox and focussed on social justice.

Yair Lapid gestures as he delivers a speech at his Yesh Atid party in Tel-Aviv (Photo:Sebastian Scheiner/AP/dapd)

Yair Lapid

The political sensation of the Israeli election was the success of Yair Lapid's new secular liberal party "Yesh Atid" ("There's a future"). In its first outing at the polls, Yesh Atid won 19 of the 120 seats in parliament, making it the second largest party.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud alliance lost 11 seats, bringing it down to 31; that means the union of right-wing Jewish parties no longer has a majority. Netanyahu will have to form a coalition with different partners.

Supporters of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party celebrate after the exit polls were announced at the party's headquarters in Tel Aviv. (Ammar Awad/REUTERS)

Yesh Atid party members had plenty to celebrate

Yair Lapid is a jack of all trades in the media. He is best known as former presenter of the country's most watched news show on Channel 2. In addition, he was the writer of a column in the popular daily newspaper "Yediot Acharonot." And 49-year-old Lapid doesn't just have the looks of a film star, he is also an actor, apart from being a writer of plays, TV series and children's books.

The bearer of hope

Lapid didn't emerge from nowhere. His mother, Shulamit Lapid, is a well-known writer of several novels and children's books. Her crime novels are also well known abroad. His father, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, who died in 2008, was a Holocaust survivor and became a successful journalist in Israel. In the 1990s, he switched to politics, becoming Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister. He was a champion of liberal and secular principles. And that continues to be the core of his son's policies.

In this photo dated Dec. 22, 2010, Israeli journalist, author and TV-anchor Yair Lapid attends a conference in Tel Aviv. Lapid, one of Israel's most popular television personalities (Photo: Miriam Alster/AP)

Yair Lapid is bets known from Israeli television

For years, Yair Lapid played with the idea of switching from journalism to politics. In January 2012, he quit his job at the TV station and became leader of Yesh Atid.

According to Marc Berthold, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tel Aviv, his impressive election victory is due to his role as someone in whom people could place their hopes.

"He did a lot of campaigning on the streets and focused on less contentious issues," Berthold told DW. "At the end, he was able to benefit from the fact that 20 percent of the people were still undecided shortly before election day"

Of all the candidates, he offered Israelis the most positive image for them to project their own wishes because very little was known about his political goals.

"He didn't get heavily involved in very controversial debates, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Berthold explained.

A voice for the middle class

A torn poster of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen in on a wall in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013.
Photo:Sebastian Scheiner/AP/dapd

Netanyahu chose early elections - and lost out

Instead, Lapid focused on less central issues, Berthold said. He called for an end to the exemption of military service for the ultra-Orthodox community as well as a stop to its financial privileges. His issue was social justice. While Benjamin Netanyahu focused on the threat of Iran and presented his Likud alliance as a guarantor of security, Yair Lapid was speaking about the national debt and the weakness of the education system.

Lapid's style could be described as pragmatic, with a tendency not to take risks, Berthold said, despite the fact that he does have real convictions on big issues like the conflict with the Palestinians: "He wants a two-state solution. But only if Jerusalem remains in the hands of the Israelis."

That's a firm position, even if he's never spoken about concrete borders or the removal of settlements.

Lapid sees himself as the voice of the Israeli middle class. In an interview with Deutsche Welle during the campaign, he emphasized his demand that burdens should be distributed equally in society.

But he has shown himself ready to compromise. It would be bad for Israel, he said, if the country were to get a government dominated entirely by the right-wing and the ultra-Orthodox.

"We need a coalition of all the forces," he concluded.

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