Israeli TV star set to run for Knesset

By Anshel Pfeffer, March 25, 2010

For once, elections in Israel are not even on the horizon. By law the country will not have to go to the polls for another three years and a coalition crisis is not even on the cards.

Even if Binyamin Netanyahu's current right-wing partners turn against him, he can still join forces with Kadima and form a new centrist coalition.

Still, this relatively stable political landscape has not stopped the Israeli media and parliament feverishly speculating about a political upheaval: the emergence of a force that may rearrange the balance of power in the Knesset.

This new party does not, as of yet, have a name, manifesto, or any members. It does, however, have a figurehead, one of the most recognisable faces in Israel.

TV presenter, author, columnist and heart-throb Yair Lapid has refused to confirm reports that he is planning to run for office, yet polling companies are already including his name in surveys about voters' intentions in the next election.

According to a poll carried out for Israel Radio last week, if Israelis were to vote today, a Lapid party would get over 10 per cent and 14 new Knesset members.

Hardly known outside the country, Mr Lapid, 46, has been a constant presence on screens in Israel for 15 years, hosting a series of popular chat-shows and, for the past two years, anchoring Channel Two's flagship Friday-night news magazine. For two decades he has written one of the most-widely read columns in the tabloid press, and over the years he has tried his hand as a boxer, actor, playwright, poet, screen writer, newspaper editor and advertising icon.

Writing and journalism is in his blood. His grandfather was one of the founders of Maariv, his mother a noted author and, perhaps most significantly, his late father was the journalist-turned-politician Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, former leader of the secular Shinui party.

Lapid Jr, a permanent fixture in any magazine's list of Israel's sexiest men, has, through his writing, constructed his image as a middle-of-the-road Israeli, staunchly secular yet firmly connected to what he sees as Jewish values. He professes a love for the Bible, is firmly patriotic yet extremely careful never to align himself with a particular party line. In recent years, he has campaigned mainly for educational reform.

For over three decades, there has been a yearning within the Israeli electorate for a party that represents the aspirations of the secular middle-class, yet these parties have never survived for long. Some, like Shinui, achieved initial electoral success but then imploded. The only such party to reach power was Kadima, which is now in opposition and undergoing a leadership crisis threatening its very existence.

Mr Lapid's only reference so far to a political career was in an interview two months ago. When asked about a run for the Knesset, he answered, "I will have to make a decision a minute before the next elections."

But in recent weeks there have been multiple reports on meetings between Mr Lapid and various political figures and campaign managers. His many critics in the media have accused him of shallow populism, but his message is deemed to be so potent that there are already moves in the Knesset to pass a law forcing media personalities to "cool off" from the limelight for a year before running in the elections.

Last updated: 2:23pm, March 25 2010