Interview: Yair Lapid

Critics call him a five-minute wonder, but Yair Lapid, the media personality turned Knesset wannabe, has policies - not least on the Palestinians and Charedim - that he hopes will win over Israeli voters.


Lapid suggests UN troops as a buffer between Israelis and Palestinians. "They have nice blue hats," he jokes

Lapid suggests UN troops as a buffer between Israelis and Palestinians. "They have nice blue hats," he jokes

Imagine a cross between Jeremy Paxman and Jonathan Ross, with a twist of Daniel Craig-style good looks and a soupçon of Ian McEwan, and you are on the way to de-coding Yair Lapid. Now imagine that "PaxRo DanMac" has announced that he is entering the political world and you get some measure of the impact of Lapid's announcement in Israel that he was abandoning the comfortable studio sofa of his weekly television show, Ulpan Shishi, to run for the Knesset.

It helps, of course, that Lapid, 48, is strikingly good-looking and oozes charm and self-confidence. We arrange to meet in his neighbourhood, an upmarket suburb north of Tel Aviv, in a café where the customers are so cool that Lapid's entry does not even turn heads. In the café's tiny car park, a space has suddenly and magically opened up for him. "That was lucky," I say. Without missing a beat, he fires back: "Luck is my middle name."

Earlier this year Lapid published an extraordinary memoir, Memories After My Death, in which he seamlessly told the life story of his beloved father, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, a Hungarian immigrant who was himself a long-established journalist who entered politics.

"I could hear his voice in my head," says his son, smiling, when asked about the process of writing the book. "Hungarians, by nature, are inveterate storytellers. It's their favourite pastime. My father never forgot what he was or where he was, but he dedicated his life to becoming a prototype of an Israeli in a time when everyone was trying to create that."

Lapid draws a distinction between himself and his father, not least because Tommy Lapid, a self-described "European gentleman", remained, despite his best efforts, an immigrant. But a close reading of the book, where Lapid Senior's political opinions are expressed with pugnacious honesty, will grant the careful reader an insight into what Lapid Junior might bring to Israeli political life.

When we meet it is only days before his volcanic declaration, via Facebook, that he is indeed jumping into the political scene. He steadfastly refuses to confirm, at our meeting, that he is doing so, at one point laughingly noting: "I'm too experienced to trick".

But, in fact, his entry has been one of Israel's worst-kept secrets, on the cards for more than a year, during which time he has been carefully securing political support by going out on the stump and addressing meetings, big and small, all over the country.

Snapshot

Born: 1963, Tel Aviv. Father, Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, journalist and ex-minister of justice. Mother, novelist Shulamit Lapid
Career: Host of talk show, Ulpan Shishi, Also journalist, novelist, scriptwriter and playwright. Worked as model and actor
Personal life: Wife, novelist Lihie Lapid. Two sons, and a daughter, who is severely autistic.

During our wide-ranging discussion he tries hard to distance himself from his imminent declaration, but is clearly frustrated expressing policies that he has to pass off as merely opinions. A poll issued by the respected Smith Research Centre in Israel this week showed that 43 per cent of the Israeli Jewish public [55 per cent of secular Jews] supported Lapid's entry into political life.

There are, says Lapid, two major areas to be addressed. "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the other, perhaps less attractive to the international press, is the inner field of Israeli society, which interests me more. With the Palestinians, I think both big ideologies ruling the Israeli arena were proved wrong in the past decade or so. The Israeli right has realised that we cannot rule three-and-a-half million Palestinians for ever. The left has realised that this daydream of two nations living together… actually, it goes even deeper than that. They've realised that this idea that all men have been created the same and that all they want is peace, love and to be able to support their families, is just bogus. Because people have different needs and wants, and for the Palestinians, their desire to have their own version of nationalism is stronger than peace and love and let's all hold hands and be friends.

"My thinking is that the conclusion of the collapse of these two ideologies, is that it is not for peace we should aspire, but for a solid agreement which would help us separate as efficiently as possible."

This, I suggest, is the Amos Oz solution: divorce.

"That's the difference between me and Amos," says Lapid. "Amos thinks it's going to be a friendly divorce. I don't. I just want it to be a divorce. And I do not desire any relationship with the divorcé. In 10, 20 years' time, the economy and life will take its course. But what we need right now is to separate. And it will help us a lot if there are some European and American soldiers in between." The UN, he says, is doing just this in Lebanon. "And," he adds with a grin, "they have nice blue hats."

At this stage Lapid, even if he has answers up his sleeve, is not ready to provide them. "I will tell you what the problems are, but not the solutions," he says. The major problem in Israeli society, for him, is the abyss between secular Israelis, for whom he is the poster boy, and the strictly Orthodox. Just over 50 per cent of first-grade (five-year-old) pupils in Israel this year, he says, "are either strictly Orthodox or Arab. Which means that if we don't do anything, 12 years from now more than 50 per cent of 18-year-old Israelis are not going to go into the army, university, or the job market. That is the end of the Zionist idea, without a single shot being fired. That's why internal affairs are way more crucial, in my view."

He is aware that secular Jews are unlikely to be able to redress the demographic balance ("although," he says cheerfully. "I can recommend it as a hobby"). More seriously he wants to address trying to get Charedim into the job market. "We should help them any way we can, including helping them with core studies of maths and English."

Remarkably, Lapid claims that he has had a positive response from young Charedim when he has gone on the stump. "If you go to the Charedi michlala [teacher training college] in Kiryat Ono, you find a new generation of young Charedim who are tired of being poor, of being ruled by extreme rabbis, taking them to the point of no return in their relationship with the secular Israelis. They are even tired of knowing that they are being supported by the labour of their wives, who are themselves tired of being the slaves of this society. These people are my allies. I want to help them in every possible way, because I don't hate Charedim, I don't hate a single Jew in the world. I am even willing to consider separating the question of going into the army from the question of going to work. We should start that way: tell them, no money for your schools unless you teach maths, English, Hebrew and computers; but if you want to go to work, we will do everything to help you."

He has, he says, had a number of less public meetings with the Charedi leadership. "And I still haven't done enough. I should have done more." It is not, he insists, the start of a political campaign. Slightly disingenuously, he says: "As long as I'm not in politics, and maybe I will never be, I wouldn't do anything to compromise the ethics of the people I work for. People are paying me money to be a journalist, not to politically campaign."

Nevertheless, he says candidly: "If I am going into politics, there's not going to be a single Charedi who will vote for me [an assertion borne out by the Smith Institute poll]. I have nothing to gain from this dialogue. I only do this because I really care about it."

Israeli Charedim, he says, "are just tired. They're not tired of being religious: they find great comfort in it. But they are tired of the way of living they were forced into by a blunt combination of cynical politicians and extremist rabbis. They are tired and they want out. And, by the way, I get the same sense from the Israeli middle-class, which is also tired. They are tired of paying all the taxes, doing reserve duty, and being used over and over again by a system which doesn't care."

Sharp and funny, and well aware of all the nay-sayers and critics who charge him with being a shallow media five-minute wonder, Yair Lapid may well regret leaving the comfort of the studio sofa for the rough world of politics - though some have hailed him as Israel's saviour.

But he looks to me, like his father, like a man who relishes a fight. And for Lapid, it is a fight he cares passionately about.

Last updated: 11:31am, January 12 2012