You can never quite tell in the unpredictable world of Israeli politics, but if the cards fall right, the country’s next First Lady is set to be a passionate political activist who’s renowned for her outspoken views and love of motorbikes.
Lihi Lapid’s husband Yair Lapid is minister of foreign affairs and, according to the government’s rotation agreement, will replace Naftali Bennett next year to become the country’s 14th prime minister.
Of course all of that has been thrown into doubt by the resignation last week that has removed the fragile coalition’s majority.
Speaking to the JC shortly before the current crisis beset the coalition, she already made it clear she’s taking nothing for granted: “I am really afraid of bad luck, and I know politics. One day you are here the next there. So I am really concentrating on the now.
“I am happy with this government, they thought out of the box, and I want it to continue as long as possible. I am not thinking about the next step.”
Lihi is a formidable figure in her own right, whether as a columnist and bestselling author, press photographer, or committed campaigner for children with special needs.
In a wide-ranging interview with the JC, she talks frankly about her biggest challenges: balancing motherhood with her personal aspirations, the miscarriages she’s suffered, and her unceasing battle to help children with disabilities. It’s a deeply personal issue for her: she and Yair have two children: a son, Lior, 26 and a daughter, Yael, 25, who is autistic.
She’s speaking just a few hours after a historic moment that represents the summit of her husband’s career so far: the summit in the Negev in which he was joined by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and foreign ministers from Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE. The meeting showcased a new anti-Iran alliance forming in the Middle East that seemed impossible less than two years ago.
Sat at a restaurant in Jerusalem, a long drive from her home in Tel Aviv, she says: “When you live together with someone, you get a little bit ahead and then they do. Suddenly your partner is flying high. Today I was sitting at home watching that [the Negev summit] and thinking, ‘It’s my Yair!’ It was his dream. I was like, wow! It’s very weird. The person you grew up with since you were 20. I adore what he does and it’s very unique.”
They first met during the last stint of her military service; she was an army photographer for the official publication of the IDF, Bamachane magazine. Lihi has always been supportive of her husband’s political ambitions. Since his career jump from TV personality to founder and leader of the Yesh Atid party, she has been with him on the campaign trails. They were the “It” couple of Israel; Lihi known for her motorbikes and short hair, Lapid for following in his father’s political footsteps. But it was not political activism that gave her the courage to write, it was motherhood.
She says: “I think we [women] can do anything. There was a point that I realised that the fact things were changing for women was when I was a photographer and my boss at the paper at the time asked me if I wanted to cover the Israeli field hospitals in the Rwandan conflict the next day. “It was a very hard time, I came back disturbed. Sometimes I look through the photos and cry with some of my colleagues who were there with me. But the first thing I did when I got back was get on my motorbike and rode to my gynaecologist. I was pregnant, and it was my third pregnancy.
Lihi explains why she kept this one a secret: “The second pregnancy… well… It was the weekend and all over the press that I was pregnant.” She says that everyone called to wish them Mazel Tov. “Unfortunately, I had miscarried. It was hard.
“The doctor told me to quit motorbiking, and that I couldn’t go on trips like Rwanda. Then it struck me, ‘But they told us we can do anything?’
“It was so shocking for me that the fact I am a woman changed the equation, So I went on bed rest. When I wanted to go back to work I realised no one wanted to hire a photographer that has to breastfeed every four hours. Luckily my second child was conceived four months later but I really questioned how I was going to be a mother. There is something about being a woman that is passed down from generation to generation. So I started writing.”
She jests that she actually wanted to write a book entitled “Why didn’t you tell me? You told me I can do anything.” (In fact, she’s had three bestsellers in Israel: Secrets From Within, Women Of Valour and most recently Foreign).
Her biggest challenge is campaigning for equality for children with disabilities. It’s something to which she and Yair have dedicated part of their lives. They are strong advocates for inclusion in every area of normal life, from school to the workplace. She says: “Growing up, we didn’t really see kids with disabilities in the classroom, I do not know where they went, did they stay at home? Our kids were born when the internet started so the world opened up.”
Again she found herself fighting for what she believed in and successfully helped open up the first Kindergarten in Tel Aviv that accepted children with special needs.
“In Jerusalem it already existed, they were one step ahead, the percentage of people with disabilities in Jerusalem is higher.”
In her books, Lihi uses some of her own experiences but she and Yair do try to maintain their daughter’s privacy. She says: “We don’t publish photos of her. She lives as normal a life as possible. We built a home near our home that she shares with 24 adults. There was a huge struggle with what to do with her after she was 21.” She says her last battle was to open a day centre for that age group so they could work during the day and maintain some kind of normality in society.
Lihi is the president of an organisation called SHEKEL, which develops community services for every person with a disability, enabling their independence at home, work, and during leisure and social activity. It’s the leading organisation for inclusion in Israel.
Three years ago Lihi came up with the idea of enabling disabled young adults to live on kibbutzim. Now there are 11 kibbutzim that receive young adults and places them to work and live.
Lihi is widely seen as a pioneer in Israel for integrating disabled young adults into society, and she spoke up and wrote about her personal experience when many didn’t.
“The first law Yair signed [in the process of being passed by the Knesset] was the Law for People with Disabilities, which means that you can decide what is the best need for you, if you want to live in a hostel or apartment for example. It gives choice to the person.”
Whether she makes it to Balfour Street (the Israeli equivalent of No 10), no one can say for sure. But this much is certain: Lihi will need no mission, no campaign to adopt for her public role. She already has one. Fighting for inclusion for Israel’s special needs.