Yair Lapid, the founder of Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid Party, is making a concerted effort to let American Jews know he is a moderate who shares many of their concerns about right-leaning policies of the current government, including the lack of peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the backtracking on the Kotel [Western Wall] compromise on egalitarian prayer.
Lapid held a town hall meeting in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago for English-speaking immigrants and had planned to participate in a Jewish Week-sponsored forum this past Sunday at Park Avenue Synagogue, a co-sponsor. It was canceled because Lapid had to be in Israel that day.
But in a phone interview with The Jewish Week, Lapid said he believes he and his party “represent the majority of Israelis, who feel something wrong is going on” with the current Netanyahu government.
“I am usually hesitant to criticize the government” in the diaspora, he said, “but it is unheard of, ridiculous, that Israel is the only Western country where its citizens do not have full religious rights.”
He said he was “enraged” over the government’s decision to renege on the long-discussed Kotel compromise, which would have enhanced egalitarian participation and given representatives of the liberal denominations a voice in overseeing the Kotel area. He called the coalition vote an example of “the lowest form of political interest.”
Quoted recently as saying he is “always in full-fledged campaigning mode,” the 53-year-old former television journalist is hoping to unseat Prime Minister Netanyahu. Though national elections are not scheduled until 2019, the prime minister is being investigated on several fronts and there is talk of his stepping down or, more likely, calling for early elections.
Lapid was the major success story of the 2013 elections, winning 19 seats for his fledgling party—finishing second only to Likud – based on a campaign that focused on helping the middle class and ensuring that charedi young men would perform national service. He became finance minister and helped push through legislation to draft charedim but was fired by Netanyahu in December 2014, and his party is not in the current government, where charedi parties have been influential.
Expressing concern about reports of growing alienation among young American Jews toward Israel, Lapid said it was a “worrisome tendency” and noted that “it used to be, and should be, that pro-Israel and Jewish were the same, and that part of being Jewish is the longing for Israel.” But he said that “more open dialogue and discussion” could ease the “disappointment and anger” of those who feel disassociated from Israel.
“We can’t afford to lose Jews in the U.S.,” he said. “Let us not let anger manage us. Let’s be smarter and discuss the issues.”
Acknowledging that “a wave of political populism” is sweeping across the U.S., Israel and other countries, Lapid said he senses a “backlash” toward “moderation and practical solutions.” He calls for peace talks that would include Arab states, given that bilateral talks with the Palestinians have not succeeded. “Let’s see what we can agree on,” he said, emphasizing that progress would be gradual and limited, first seeking a “partial agreement to end the conflict between neighbors.”
Though Lapid chose not to discuss specifics about President Trump, he said he was pleased that the American leader and Netanyahu get along. He also thinks the U.S. should be more involved in the Mideast, where Iran’s presence is in Syria. And he said he wants to “bring back decency” into an Israeli political system he believes is broken.
“I don’t worry about things,” he said. “I do something about them.”