Where's the money?

While Israel is naturally concerned by the ever-present dangers that hover over us, the inequitable social burden and the direction of Israeli society have become so omnipresent in our daily life that they pre-occupy Israelis more than the prospect of Iranian weapons grade uranium or Palestinian missiles and terror.

Those concerns drove Yair Lapid to leave his well-paid, influential position as the most popular news anchor on Israeli TV to enter the brutal, merciless and unforgiving ring of Israeli politics. Like many of Israel’s earlier unwilling leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, he feels he has no choice.

Ben Caspit, one of Israel’s most respected columnists wrote: “Yair Lapid decided that he can no longer bear it, that he must do something, that he must come down from the comfortable ivory tower of the Friday night news studio and make a stand. … he took the first step and should be congratulated.”

What possesses someone who has achieved virtual icon status to enter the political killing fields littered with skeletons of so many popular would-be reformers, a field that many have mounted legal and political obstacles to prevent him from entering?

If asked, Lapid would probably answer in traditional Jewish fashion with another question: “Where’s the money?” These words, which have become his de-facto slogan, are drawn from his only public appearance since he announced his political intentions:
• “This country does not belong to interest groups, to lobbyists, to tycoons, to stone throwers, to those that threaten IDF officers, and the country does not belong to politicians…. The country belongs to us. It belongs to the taxpayers, to those who do their reserve military duty, to those whose children serve in the IDF, to the middle class of Israel. Israel belongs to the producing and working public that give so much and receive so little, it belongs to those who have finally begun to ask, where’s the money, and that is the question that I am going to ask over and over. … It is not an economic question; it is a moral question.”
• “The coalition system is dysfunctional and has turned politics into a corrupt and rotten game that allows us to be dominated by narrow interests and blackmailing parties. This (year) … 50% of first-graders are either ultra-orthodox or Arab. This means that if we do not do something, in 12 years 50% of (Israelis) will not serve in the IDF and will not enter the work force and that will be the end of the Zionist state. The Palestinians do not need to fight us, but rather to sit back, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and wait for the Zionist dream to implode.”
• “In the end, we will always stand by and watch how our money goes to bureaucracy and favoritism to apartments for the friends of Ariel Attias (the minister of housing from the ultra-orthodox Shas party). What kind of life is this? I am not willing to live my life this way and will not throw up my hands in despair.”

Lapid is a marked man by the existing political order. The ultra-orthodox parties criticized his statements by accusing him of incitement and pointed out that Lapid did not serve in combat, but was a military reporter. Their hostility is further fueled by the fact that when Lapid’s father, the late Yosef Lapid, served as minister of justice he was a staunch opponent of the ultra-orthodox establishment and built a movement that demanded they desist from existing at taxpayer expense.

Most of the other political parties have not attacked Lapid’s positions, which resonate strongly with the majority of Israelis and reflect the Zionist vision that these parties ostensibly represent. But they have reminded the public about the swinging, elitist image Lapid had in his 20s and 30s and have tried to build a wall of laws to keep him out.

Lapid Law 1 requires journalists who enter politics to wait 18 months after resigning before entering politics. Lapid called the bluff of the initiators of this draconian bill and stepped down from Channel 2 to avoid going “into the fridge.” The recently passed Lapid Law 2 requires individuals who announce their intention to enter politics to disclose every contributor and contribution they receive. Until now, only parties were required to disclose this information, because parties stand for election and not individuals. But as Lapid has backers of wealth, his opponents hoped that exposing his supporters would deter some of them.
French philosopher Paul Valery once said, “Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs that properly concern them.”

Initially pollsters predicted huge success for Lapid, but the campaign against him has begun to take a toll, partially with the aid of Lapid himself. For instance, when reports emerged that he had applied for a doctorate program at Bar Ilan University although he never completed his bachelor degree, he could have defused the situation by withdrawing his application. Instead he stated on his Facebook page that it was not important for him to be accepted. The media, who had so touted him, pounced on him for being childish and arrogant. Combined with a few other gaffes, recent surveys show his support has fallen by about half. But elections are probably 12 to 18 months away and Lapid has not yet revealed his full platform or whether he will join an existing party or establish a new party. Thus, neither poll will be relevant when the campaign begins in earnest. If Lapid sticks to his message, learns from his mistakes and successfully negotiates the minefield prepared for him, he should achieve enough seats in the next Knesset to be able to affect real change.

If Lapid succeeds on election night, he still needs to avoid the Bermuda Triangle-like fate of most centrist parties who have promised change but quickly disintegrated and disappeared, leaving despair and disappointment in their wake. Despite an election-day clamor for a pragmatic center, in our dangerous and unforgiving neighborhood the hard Israeli reality leaves no room in day-to-day politics for soft positions.

Lapid will not be prime minister in the next election, and may never be. Despite Netanyahu’s unlikeable personality, I believe he will be re-elected because his positions on Israel’s security and defense needs reflect the Israeli consensus, myself included. If Lapid challenges Netanyahu’s basic security positions, he will be distracted from the issues that many Israelis believe he can successfully help solve.

Lapid could make a huge impact for a more just reality if he concentrates on these core social issues and wins seats in the Knesset. If he could then form a coalition with Likud, it would free the ruling coalition from the narrow pressures of the ultra-orthodox and extremist right-wing parties by replacing them.

This is the real contribution Lapid can make. Lapid needs Netanyahu, but ironically, Netanyahu needs Lapid. Lapid will be under intense pressure because his failure could spell doom for the Zionist dream of the secular majority. Lapid’s intelligence, abilities and charisma give him the basic tools required. What is unknown is his character. This will be the crucial test; we should learn the results soon enough.

Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel and now consults for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. He can be reached at mylantanz@gmail.com.

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