Yair Lapid really wants my vote. In an electoral system where your political constituency is assumed to be your religious or social grouping, any political event aimed at Jerusalem-based Anglos catches my attention. And ones attended by party leaders don’t come around frequently, even in election season. So while Bibi Netanyahu thinks he’s won me over with eloquent Israel advocacy speeches and Naftali Bennett assumes I support him because I went to a hesder yeshiva and worked for Bnei Akiva, I appreciated the fact that Lapid came to sell his vision of Israel to me.
So I signed up online and received my confirmation SMS in perfect English (they really know how to win me over). Upon arrival at the venue I was effortlessly guided through the museum by Yesh Atid activists at every corner – which of course aimed to symbolise the smooth and efficient government Yesh Atid aspire to run. Had they started on time, I think they would have secured my vote on the spot.
The feeling of waiting for something long overdue only increased once Lapid took the stage. In his opening remarks, he captured the essence of many a Shabbat table discussion within the Anglo community by saying things I have long wished a politician would utter with genuine sincerity: Israel should be both a Jewish state and a democratic state and these values aren’t contradictory; the fraught political discourse must be toned down in order to achieve a more cohesive society; there are no magical solutions on either the left or the right to solve the Palestinian issue. And when he likened state bureaucracy to the ‘tyranny of democracies’, it was as if he was transposing himself into every conversation starter among Anglo olim in the history of the state.
Lapid’s ability to sweet-talk the audience was impressive, all the more so given that he is not a native English speaker. He spoke eloquently of a democratic and professional approach to government, showed real respect for Israel’s Jewish character and did not shy from bantering with the audience, which at times had me laughing out loud. He was clearly in his comfort zone, and so was I. It did not seem to bother him that people disagreed with his views, since he respectfully disagreed with a smile and a polite riposte. His strategy is to gain people’s trust as a politician who genuinely has their best interests at heart.
And this was Lapid’s biggest achievement of the night: the sense that he genuinely cares about people’s lives and has an inclusive and aspirational vision of Israeli politics, society and the place of the state in citizens’ lives.
Yet there was something missing. Ah yes, policies. Who needs them, you may ask? I only counted one concrete policy pledge made by Netanyahu at the last election (and by the way Bibi, we’re still waiting for you to change the electoral system). Lapid may have calculated that it’s too politically risky to release specific policies at this early stage, but it consequently felt like he had invited us to a book launch and forgot to bring the book.
And yet when specific policies were asked for, Lapid often resorted to reaffirm the merits of some of Yesh Atid’s old policies in the last government. We were therefore once again treated to a defence of the National Equal Burden Law that requires Charedim to draft in the IDF, a commitment to re-ban Ministers without Portfolio and a half-hearted attempt to claim that he still thinks 0% VAT on apartment purchases is a good idea. Yesh Avar, perhaps?
In an age of growing political extremism, with previously moderate politicians (or in the case of America, TV stars) gravitating ever further away from the unpopular middle ground, it was refreshing for Lapid to admit that there are no simple solutions to Israel’s greatest problems. Acknowledging the merits and demerits of the cases for and against a Palestinian state, and the need for a fairer and more equal society without imposing socialism on the masses, Lapid made a concerted effort to define himself at what he termed ‘the centre centre’.
However his inability to back up his grandiose societal visions with any form of plan, barring a reprise of Lapid: Episode 1, left many in the audience feeling very unsure. And when questioner after questioner (although a more accurate description would have been ‘ranter, with a personal belief statement ending in a raised voice to indicate some form of question’) asked for specifics, Lapid would retreat into safe territory: Yesh Atid will make the government run efficiently and your problem will therefore be solved.
A thought crossed my mind that Lapid should consider running for President of Israel. With his ability to understand both right and left narratives, natural patriotism and heroic family survival story, and his jovial nature, Lapid would be a natural successor to Rubi Rivlin. But Israel needs that from a Prime Minister, who is simultaneously able to juggle the micro as well as the macro, be able to form coalitions, deal in the art of compromise and have the political nous to make change. If Lapid’s biggest sin was being too naive last time round, he didn’t do anything to convince me that he wouldn’t be so again.
The election season according to Yesh Atid has begun, and the jury is out on the old-new centrist-populist favourite. If there’s one thing I have learned from this event, it’s that I truly believe that Yair Lapid would make a great contribution to my Shabbat table discussion.