Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a press conference in Ankara, on June 23, 2022. As caretaker prime minister after parliament dissolved itself on Thursday, the still-chiseled but now gray-haired Lapid may have to reach out more widely to maintain a stable government and win a November 1 election on his own merits Image Credit: AFP

JERUSALEM: As a TV star and newspaper columnist, Yair Lapid titled his weekly commentary “Being Israeli” - a rhapsody about the politically centrist middle-class that he saw holding together a fractious country, with him as its tribune.

As caretaker prime minister after parliament dissolved itself on Thursday, the still-chiseled but now gray-haired Lapid may have to reach out more widely to maintain a stable government and win a November 1 election on his own merits.

But, the 58-year-old Lapid 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.

Motivated by public service

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.”

Next month, Lapid, who retains the foreign ministry portfolio he held under his coalition partner Naftali Bennett, will host US President Joe Biden.

Palestinian statehood

In contrast to the nationalist Bennett’s impatience with talk of Palestinian statehood, Lapid has described such diplomacy as necessary for Israel’s well-being - but argued that both sides were too domestically hamstrung to pursue them.

On Israel’s arch-foe Iran, Lapid is not expected to change course. But his credibility on the home front - and experience from a previous term as finance minister - will be tested by a spiralling cost-of-living crisis.

Despite not graduating from high school, Lapid became a successful writer and made no secret of self-teaching he needed with each new government role.

Popular TV series

During an earlier stint in Hollywood working for Israeli-US mogul Arnon Milchan, Lapid gained a regard for American power-projection and expectations of a Middle East ally.

In 2005, he wrote a popular TV series, “War Room”, whose dialogue and camera work drew directly from “The West Wing” but whose premise was an Israeli fantasy: a secret unit of elite spies and military officers who handled national crises as professionals, rather than politicians.

But Lapid learned how to horse-trade.

After an unhappy alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu, he teamed up with Bennett to topple the veteran premier a year ago at the head of an unprecedentedly diverse coalition of nationalist, liberal and Arab parties.

That consigned to the opposition ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions, whose leaders have long scorned Lapid as “Yaheer” - Hebrew for “arrogant” and a pun on his first name.

Lapid rather inherited that mantle. His late father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, was a Holocaust survivor turned secular politician who delighted in antagonising the rabbis.

Commitment to family

But while invoking the elder Lapid’s memory of the Nazi genocide when advocating for a tough stand against Israel’s enemies, Yair has been less keen to engage in intra-Jewish quarrels.

“The Israeli system is in need of serious change and major repairs,” he said last week. “What we need to do today is go back to the concept of Israeli unity. Not to let dark forces tear us apart from within.” Lapid is married with three children, one of whom is autistic - a condition he has spoken of publicly in campaigning for disabled rights in Israel.

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.