How Israel's Yair Lapid moved from TV anchor to coalition architect

Despite having engineered the coalition, 57-year-old Yair Lapid would initially serve as foreign minister. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Mr Yair Lapid, who late on Wednesday (June 2) succeeded in assembling the most improbable coalition in Israel's history, is a former opposition leader and television anchor.

When Mr Lapid founded his centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party in 2012, some dismissed him as the latest in a series of media stars seeking to transform his celebrity into political success.

But his fiercely secularist party finished second with 17 seats in March elections, Israel's fourth inconclusive vote in less than two years, and he was mandated last month to form a government after veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu failed in the task.

Less than an hour before the deadline, Mr Lapid informed Israel's president that he had pulled off what many had thought was impossible - cobbling together a coalition of bitter ideological rivals, ranging from right-wing religious nationalists to conservative Muslim Arab citizens of Israel.

That achievement was all the more remarkable given the intercommunal clashes last month between Jewish and Arab citizens, sparked by the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

The coalition deal he brokered, if it is approved by Israel's parliament, would see Mr Lapid assume the premiership only after a two-year stint at the top by his main coalition ally, nationalist hardliner Naftali Bennett.

Despite having engineered the alliance, 57-year-old Mr Lapid would initially serve as foreign minister.

'Voice of experience'

Mr Lapid, a former news anchor known for his chiselled good looks, is the Tel Aviv-born son of the fiercely secular former justice minister Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, another journalist who left the media to enter politics.

His mother, Ms Shulamit, is a novelist, playwright and poet.

Mr Lapid was a newspaper columnist who has also published a dozen books, and was a presenter on Channel 2 TV, a role that boosted his stardom.

An amateur boxer and martial artist, he once featured on lists of Israel's most desirable men.

Yesh Atid had claimed a surprising 19 seats in Israel's 120-member parliament back in 2013 polls, establishing it as a credible force in politics.

The party joined the centrist Blue and White alliance formed in 2019 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.

When Mr Gantz decided last spring to enter a Netanyahu-led coalition, citing the need for unity as the coronavirus pandemic was gathering pace, Mr Lapid bolted.

He accused Mr Gantz of breaching a fundamental promise Blue and White had made to its supporters: That it would fight to oust Netanyahu.

In an interview with AFP in September, Mr Lapid said Mr Gantz had naively believed that Netanyahu would work collaboratively within the coalition.

"I told (Mr 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'," Mr Lapid said.

After exiting Blue and White, Mr 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 Mr Gantz.

Now, attention will turn to how far the even more unwieldy coalition engineered by Mr Lapid can endure before ideological tensions boil to the surface.

Its first test will be holding together for a vote in Israel's parliament later in June.

Netanyahu, famous for his political survival skills, is likely to try to split apart the alliance, which could send Israelis back to the polls yet again.

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