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In entering Israeli politics, Yair Lapid eyes force of socioeconomic status

Yair Lapid, alongtime television anchor, is quitting journalism to enter politics. (Yair Lapid's official Facebook page)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — One of the big open questions after Israel’s social protests last summer was whether or not the one-time mass movement would be able to translate its newfound clout into lasting political power.

During the weeks of protests and for months afterward, none of Israel’s political parties seemed able to capture the demonstrators’ voice or allegiances.

But that could change with the entry into politics of one of Israel’s most popular journalists and TV personalities, Yair Lapid, son of the late Shinui Party leader Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who also was a journalist.

Polls show that the younger Lapid, who is expected to form a new centrist secular political party, could receive up to 20 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, making him a potent political force.

While Lapid has refused to give interviews since his Jan. 8 announcement, a column he penned in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot offered a glimpse of what his platform will be: “Where’s the money?”

“This is the big question asked by Israel’s middle class, the same sector on whose behalf I’m going into politics,” Lapid wrote. “Where’s the money? Why is it that the productive sector, which pays taxes, fulfills its duties, performs reserve service and carries the entire country on its back, doesn’t see the money?”

Lapid’s political gambit constitutes an assault on Israel’s politically powerful haredi Orthodox minority at a time of heightened tensions between secular and haredi Israelis. In his column, Lapid had harsh words for haredim, few of whom serve in the army but many of whom are recipients of government largesse.

“For many years now, the State of Israel has been subjugated to extortionist, shameless interest groups, some of them non-Zionist even, which misuse our distorted system of government in order to rob the middle class of its money,” wrote Lapid, who for years has flirted with entering politics.

A day after Lapid resigned from his job as anchorman of Israel’s Channel Two Friday night news magazine to prepare for his run for Knesset, another well-known Israeli, Noam Shalit, declared that he also would be a candidate for Knesset.

Shalit, who became a household name in the five-year effort to free his soldier son, Gilad, from Hamas captivity, will run on the Labor Party list. The soft-spoken Shalit said he wants to give something back to the country that worked so hard to free his son.

Israel’s next elections are scheduled to take place in early 2013, but a vote could come sooner if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls for new elections or if the current governing coalition falls.

In any case, Lapid’s run could dramatically change the Israeli political game, some analysts say.

“This is potentially an explosive transformation,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, the director of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious freedom in Israel.

A poll conducted by Hiddush found that 43 percent of the general Israeli public and 55 percent of the secular public welcomes Lapid’s entry into politics. One-third of the respondents said they would seriously consider voting for Lapid whether he forms a new party or joins an established one.

“This may be the beginning of the end of the dominion of the haredi parties,” Regev said.

But other analysts said Lapid simply will split the center and left-wing vote even further because he will be unable to make inroads into the right-religious bloc headed by Netanyahu.

“This could galvanize the same 20 to 30 seats that belong to this middle-class, secular, mostly Ashkenazi agenda,” said Guy Be-Porat, a professor of public policy at Ben-Gurion University. “If you have four parties competing for the same votes, even if you divide it differently, it’s still the same.”

Ben-Porat said that unless Lapid can appeal to the center-right Likud, Sephardic and Orthodox voters, there will be no change in Israel’s political constellation.

Efforts to form a secular, centrist party have been tried.

Lapid’s father led Shinui to an impressive 15 seats in the 2003 elections. Shinui promised the public secular marriage and to sharply cut subsidies to haredim. Neither happened, and by 2006 Shinui had split into a coalition of smaller parties, none of which have made it into the Knesset.

Lapid hopes that by tapping into last summer’s social protest movement he can ride an emerging political wave into the Knesset.

Last summer’s protests, which brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets, focused on the high costs of living in Israel, particularly for young families. Netanyahu responded by forming a government committee led by economist Manuel Trajtenberg to suggest changes to Israel’s tax code, housing practices and social welfare system.

Several of those recommendations have become law, including increases in the marginal tax and corporate tax rates, and the extension of free child education to Israeli children beginning at age 3.

Part of Lapid’s appeal is that he is not a politician. He made the jump from journalism after the Knesset introduced a bill that would have required journalists to take a six-month “cooling-off period” between leaving journalism and entering politics; it was dubbed the Lapid Law. Lapid made his announcement before the law was finalized, and the measure has since been dropped.

Shalit’s entry into politics is expected to make less of a splash.

“After years of public struggle, during which I got to know Israeli society in depth in all its beauty and values, I decided to enter public activity in order to serve the public and be in a position where I can influence the character of Israeli society,” Shalit said. “The Labor Party is a social-democratic party that strives for peace, which is why it is my natural home. I believe that under the leadership of Shelly Yachimovich, Labor can lead important measures for Israeli society.”

Shalit’s announcement was greeted with mixed reactions. Some criticized Shalit for using his son’s captivity as a springboard for entering politics, while others said he could bring a welcome calm to the Knesset.

“Politics is about serving the people, and I believe him when he says he wants to serve,” said Professor Gideon Rahat of Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute. “It’s good that good people are coming into politics.”

Rahat criticized Lapid for trying to start his own party rather than joining an existing centrist party, such as Kadima, which Ariel Sharon formed in 2005 as a centrist breakaway from Likud.

“We’ve seen these ‘flash’ parties come and go,” Rahat said. “They come and say the system is corrupt and they want to change it. But then either they disappear or collapse or split or become corrupt.”

Kadima, which is the Knesset’s largest faction with 28 seats — one more than Likud — remains an exception, though polls show Kadima would lose its leading position if elections were held today.

Several Israeli analysts said Lapid might have more impact if he challenges Tzipi Livni for Kadima’s leadership rather than striking out on his own.